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FAQ: Hard facts about Google's Web Accelerator

The downloadable software speeds the delivery of Web pages but has its critics. What is it, and how does it work?

Google last week unveiled a new application for speeding up the delivery of Web pages. As has become routine with several of the company's recent announcements, including Gmail and desktop search, critics immediately looked for ulterior motives, privacy breaches and security slipups.

Some of it was to be expected; the more successful and powerful you become, the more scrutiny and conspiracy theories you spawn. So what is the truth about Google's latest move beyond search?

What is Web Accelerator, and how can it help me?
If you're surfing the Internet with a broadband connection, and you're hungry for more speed, Web Accelerator could be the ticket. It is free, downloadable software designed to speed access to Web pages by serving up cached, or compressed, copies of sites from Google's servers. For frequent Internet users, the company says the tool could save two to three hours a month in browsing time.

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What's new:
If you're surfing the Internet with a broadband connection, and you're hungry for more speed, Google's Web Accelerator could be the ticket.

Bottom line:
Google has acknowledged a vulnerability in the beta software but said it's working on a fix. Still, depending on your comfort level, your privacy could be at stake if you use the tool.

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How does Web Accelerator work?
To create the Web Accelerator, Google used research on mouse movements to help develop algorithms that monitor where people, in aggregate, are mousing and clicking on links, according to Marissa Mayer, Google's director of Web products. With that understanding of where people will likely click, Google grabs and stores copies of prospective pages for speedy retrieval.

Google keeps a cached copy of requested Web pages and precaches some other popular pages on the user's computer to load pages faster. And in some cases, it compresses pages to half or a third their size, also speeding their delivery.

"As fast as broadband is, it's still not as fast as it could be," Mayer said. "Think of Google as your proxy. In exchange, we'll try to make the Web faster for you."

Still, aren't Web Accelerators technically best for people using dial-up?
Not necessarily. Technology experts say a good Web accelerator can mitigate packet loss, or latency, as page information is sent from router to router. It also can optimize how a graphics-heavy Web site is compressed and sent to a visitor.

Is there a security flaw in Google's Web Accelerator, and how does it affect me?
Yes, Google acknowledged a vulnerability in the beta software last week, after several online critics spotted the flaw.

The software can serve cached copies of private discussion groups or password-protected pages to people using the software. For example, using the software, a Web surfer might call up a discussion group page and see the name of another group member, making it appear as if the surfer is signed in as that other user.

Google's Mayer said the company is working on a fix and that the problem has affected only small discussion group sites. Google is deactivating the mechanism that caches vulnerable Web pages and is looking at possible mathematical algorithms to prevent the caching from happening in the future.

Are my financial information or any other secure transactions at stake?
No. According to Google, the Web Accelerator does not cache Web sites using the "HTTPS" specification--a variation of HTTP that provides security for online transactions such as banking or credit card pages--so such transactions are not at risk.

Apart from the flaw, is my privacy in jeopardy by using Web Accelerator?
It could be, depending on your comfort level. According to Google's privacy policy, the Web Accelerator retrieves and caches Web pages you've visited, and those page requests can include personal information about you. It also temporarily caches third-party cookies that can contain personal data.

For example, if you've entered information such as e-mail or a physical address into a form on an unencrypted Web page, Google might pick up that data through the Web Accelerator. It also collects "clickstream" data such as URLs you've requested, the date and time of the request, as well as your Internet Protocol address and computer and connection information.

Google says it will never rent or sell a person's personal information to third parties without that user's explicit permission. But privacy advocates say people still don't know enough about what Google does with the personal information. Specifically, they are worried that Google will combine personal and clickstream data with existing search history data contained in Google's own cookie to create a far-reaching profile on Google visitors.

Mayer said Google is not combining search history data with clickstream or personal information collected by the Web Accelerator. However, if people visit Google.com while using the software, the activity will be logged by the Accelerator proxy.

Still, people can dump their cache and delete cookies often, as privacy advocates urge.

What is Google's responsibility toward me when I use this software?
None, really, if you read and agree to Google's terms of service. Like most software disclaimers, the terms of service say Web Accelerator is offered "as is" and provides no warranties regarding security and performance. In other words, use at your own risk.

If the application is free, what's in it for Google?
Google's Mayer said if people are surfing faster and using the Web more, then it will ultimately result in more searches at Google. (The company made more than $1 billion from January to March from text advertisements that appear next to search results.)

Is the beta closed?
Yes, for now, according to Google's information page. The site says it has maxed out on capacity and is "actively working to increase the number of users we can support." Still, the download page is active.

Will Google improve Web Accelerator?
Because the application is in beta, the company wants your feedback and ideas for updates at labs+webaccelerator@google.com.