Cocoon promises a safe, spam-free, private way to browse the web

Imagine browsing the web without having to worry about viruses, spam, and spyware. Imagine you could log in to see your favorite web sites from any location, without being tracked.

That’s the experience Virtual World Computing promises with it’s new Cocoon browser plug-in.

The Cocoon plug-in works with Firefox and other browsers to effectively unplug your computer from the internet and route you instead through Cocoon’s servers. Those servers filter out the bad stuff and let you surf the web through Cocoon’s own connections as fast as possible.

“We let you have more control, like setting up an electric fence around your house,” said Jeff Bermant (pictured right), chief executive and founder of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Virtual World Computing.

The benefit of going through Cocoon’s connection is that web sites can’t spy on you. They see only Cocoon, not your computer, as if you were using an “in-private browsing” feature. Normally, browsing the web privately would mean your machine would browse the web as if it were stripped of tracking software known as “cookies.” If you take out your cookies, you are in for a rude surprise when you visit a site such as Amazon.com, which won’t recognize who you are and won’t let you log in without those cookies.

But Cocoon has a clever scheme for letting you get around that. When you log into Cocoon’s SE Linux-based secure servers, everything you do is encrypted. Your browsing history, personal information, and passwords used on web sites are all protected. When you visit Amazon, no data is revealed about your computer, your internet connection, your service provider or your location. But you can still sign in via a kind of proxy.

Rather than using a traditional third-party site to mask your movements, such as a proxy server or Tor identity-masking network, Cocoon tweaks your browser. Cocoon then creates “mail slots” for you, concocting a random and disposable email address for every site that you want to log into on a regular basis. Cocoon will automatically fill out a form when you sign up, substituting a Cocoon-generated email address for your actual email address. You don’t have to remember the Cocoon email at all. When the web site wants to verify your email, it will send an email to the Cocoon email address. You can go into your mail slots, click on the name of the web site, and find the verification email there. You can then open it and click on the verification link from the web site. After you do that, the web site will confirm your account as a real one and let you proceed to browse or buy things. Cocoon can store cookies related to that site, but you don’t have to do so on your own machine.

One protection is clear. If hackers break into a company and steal your email address, as happened with the cyber attack against email marketing company Epsilon, the hackers won’t get your real email address. They will only be able to steal the Cocoon address. Your privacy is protected. Your Cocoon email address can’t be used to send email to anyone; that blocks spammers from signing up for Cocoon accounts.

Another benefit is that you can log into Cocoon from anywhere and then log into a web site. Normally, you would have to log in and prove to that web site that you are who you say you are. But Cocoon handles that for you so you can quickly get on with what you want to do. You can even log into Cocoon and see all 30 web sites you had open the last time you logged off.

Bermant founded the company in 2008 with chief technology officer Brian Fox. Bermant had a bad experience where a virus took over his server and spammed his friends with 30,000 messages a day.

“I felt there has to be a better way to browse,” Bermant said. “I didn’t like being followed around, with cookies landing on my computer without my knowledge.”

The solution was to recreate the browser so that you don’t touch the internet directly, tapping instead the benefits of virtualized and cloud computing. And you can do what you normally do. If you want to download a game, you can still do so. But soon Cocoon will scan that download for you first to check to see if any viruses are in it. You can visit a Flash web site and enjoy the rich animation without worrying that it is going to deliver a virus. And you can browse the web without worrying that a site like Facebook, or perhaps a government spying agency, is tracking your every move.

Cocoon can also be set up with master accounts and sub-accounts so that children can safely cruise the web. You can lock down the sub-accounts so they can only visit safe sites, and you can track every site the kids visit using Cocoon’s own tracking ability. You can also block the user’s ability to fire up another browser. And for yourself, you can turn off Cocoon’s ability to track your history. In that case, your internet service provider also won’t know your web-browsing history.

You can sign up for Cocoon and get a 30-day free trial and then pay $6.95 a month for it after that. There are rivals out there, but Cocoon has gone a long way to making this friendly to consumers who don’t want a lot of hassle just to browse the web privately and safely. You can, for instance, hide Cocoon from your browser window and also turn it off with a single button click.

The company already has more than 4,000 active users and is self-funded. Its advisors include Marvin Minsky, the artificial intelligence expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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