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Netscape launches browser beta

Antiphishing browser is designed to resist online fraud, taking aim at IE's growing spate of vulnerabilities.

Netscape has released a public test version of a Web browser that includes antifraud technology, with hopes of challenging Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser dominance.

The company, a division of media giant Time Warner's America Online subsidiary, said Thursday that the browser, dubbed Netscape 8, will better protect people from growing online fraud threats such as phishing.

Over the last several months, the browser has been available only to a small number of individuals involved in a limited beta test. Now anyone can download the software via the company's Web site.

The beta was expected to arrive in mid-February, but the release date slipped so that the company could fix some bugs in the software, according to Netscape. The product will remain in test mode for at least several more weeks. No date has been set for the browser's official launch, a company representative said.

Netscape once controlled approximately 80 percent of the Web browser market. But Microsoft's Internet Explorer wrested the market away and currently owns nearly 90 percent of the sector, according to most surveys.

However, IE's growing specter of security vulnerabilities has encouraged Netscape and other companies, most notably Netscape's open-source spinoff Mozilla, to make security their main selling point.

Online fraud, in particular phishing, has been growing rapidly over the last several years. Phishing attacks typically consist of e-mail that appears to come from trusted companies, such as banks or e-commerce vendors, which attempt to lure people to bogus Web sites where they're asked to divulge sensitive personal information. Most often this information is used by criminals to commit identity fraud.

Among the weapons the browser features in its effort to guard against online criminals are frequently updated blacklists of Web sites that are suspected of distributing spyware or hosting phishing schemes. Those lists are provided to Netscape by outside security researchers.

The browser promises to redirect customers to a warning page when they access a banned site, and also disables various technologies with questionable security implications, including ActiveX, scripting and cookies, if a user chooses to continue on to a blacklisted Web address. The lists had not been offered in earlier test versions of the browser.

Another feature of the browser, unrelated to security concerns, allows individuals to add RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, feeds to Netscape 8 with a single mouse click, and simplifies the process of designating a set of tabs as their home page.

The browser was built through a partnership with Canadian development company Mercurial Communications, as Netscape has cut its own programming staff considerably.

CNET News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.