There aren't many security-focused browser add-ons that funnel the entire Internet through a proxy before allowing it to reach you, and that rarity was part of the reason Cocoon was one of a small group of add-ons that charged for its services. Starting today, however, the makers of Cocoon (download) have exclusively told CNET that the add-on will be completely free--for now.

Privacy add-on Cocoon is now free to use. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The add-on, which appears as a toolbar in Firefox, creates a protected browsing state. When active, all interactions between the Internet and the computer you're using are forced to occur over protected SSL connections to Cocoon's servers. Those servers are guarded by Security-Enhanced Linux, which was developed by the United States' National Security Agency. So Cocoon provides a significantly enhanced level of browsing peace of mind when compared with basic browsing.

Cocoon has been installed more than 10,000 times, said its makers, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based start-up Virtual World Computing. Adoption rates definitely figured into the calculus when deciding to make the add-on free. "We wanted to grow Cocoon and improve it. We've been able to increase the speed of the service; it's actually faster than it was before," said Kris Washburn, vice president of marketing for Virtual World Computing, in a phone interview last week. It's the growth rate, though, that led to the company making Cocoon free.

In an interview at CNET's San Francisco offices in April of this year, Cocoon Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Jeff Bermant said that about 4,000 people had installed the add-on since it entered into a public beta at the beginning of 2011. Since then, another 6,000 people have signed on, but Cocoon wants significantly more users than that. "We want to improve the whole user experience," Bermant said, and it was clear from his tone that the subscription fee was impeding that.

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Wrap Firefox in a Cocoon of privacy

Going forward, Bermant said his company is looking at several options for keeping Cocoon in the black. "We're considering premium features down the road, and an enterprise model." Free users, he noted, will always have their privacy, and he assured CNET that there will be "no tracking of any users online within Cocoon."

In addition to the current Web proxy and on-demand e-mail "mailslots" for quick e-mail anonymization, Cocoon is looking to protect downloads. "Currently, one of the advantages of Cocoon is blocking unwanted downloads," Bermant said. "The reality is that people still want to download things. So, we will be introducing in the near future antivirus scanning of downloads."

He confirmed that the antivirus engine would be provided by a third party, as opposed to being developed in-house, although he wouldn't reveal which company would be licensing its technology to Cocoon at the moment.

Cocoon for Internet Explorer has been in the works since the spring, although the company would only confirm that it would be available "soon." Washburn said a version of Cocoon for the Android edition of Firefox is "a little further down the line."

Bermant says he believes Cocoon is on the right side of history, both in terms of what the technology powering the add-on is and how Cocoon implements it. "The future of VWC and Cocoon on the whole is that we're filtering from above, and that's what I see the world should go to," he said. "Somebody said to me, 'Oh, you'll have terrible latency problems [when browsing],' but in fact we don't. We have no latency problems."