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KEEPING THE JUNK OUT OF E-MAILBOXES

So-called ''push'' technologies that deliver personalized information from the Internet and corporate intranets may be all the buzz now, but such tricks aren't limited just to those who want to experiment with the latest Webcasting software. In fact, everyone connected to the Net today already has access to the most personal form of ''pushed'' content: electronic mail. And with an estimated 90 million E-mail addresses worldwide--almost four electronic in-boxes per Net surfer--it's an avenue that some Net companies have been quick to exploit.

If the experience of E-mail is any guide, however, the world of push delivery could alienate customers faster than it attracts them. Just ask any of the millions of subscribers to America Online (AOL) or CompuServe. For the past year, privately held Cyber Promotions in Philadelphia was bombarding members of those online services with ''spam,'' the electronic equivalent of junk mail. Hawking everything from easy-money opportunities to cheap computer modems, Cyber Promotions and other marketers claimed to be offering readers and advertisers a valuable service and argued that they shouldn't be barred.

A BAN ON SPAM. But the protest of outraged AOL and CompuServe members prompted the online services to block unsolicited E-mail. On Feb. 3, the U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, upheld CompuServe's spam ban, saying that the mass E-mail was equivalent to trespassing on that service's ''private property.''

The new generation of direct E-mailers is treading carefully. One such company is Denver-based Mercury Mail Inc., which delivers news briefs, stock quotes, weather reports, and ads based on an individual subscriber's specific profile. This could be a good business, says Mercury's Chairman John Funk. ''When you start to measure the amount of time a Net surfer spends online and what they do,'' he says, ''E-mail dominates more than the Web.''

Since its rollout last year, Mercury claims to have over 375,000 subscribers and generates over 1.1 million E-mail messages per day--a number that will quintuple by yearend as Mercury adds new features such as digital photos. What's more, since Mercury's revenues are dependent on the number of subscribers who view the ads embedded in its messages, the growth could portend a revenue windfall. With ad rates of $30 to $70 per thousand viewers, Funk says Mercury will be profitable as early as the end of 1997.

As long as those messages don't become nuisances. ''To some extent, there's an industry awareness against [unsolicited E-mail],'' says Funk. ''You don't want to annoy your subscribers and kill the golden goose.'' So Mercury takes great pains to distance itself from the spammers. Through its Web site, subscribers can very easily customize what and how much E-mail is delivered and, more important, unsubscribe from Mercury.

MESSAGE FILTERS. Other Internet companies are trying to keep electronic mailboxes from bursting. Web sites such as www.getlost.com and www.junkbusters.com will attempt to remove your E-mail address from spam lists. And in addition to blocking E-mail from spammers, AOL is looking at so-called collaborative filtering technologies. Such software, also called ''agent technology,'' resides on your PC and watches where you go and what you choose to view. The agent ''learns'' from that and will filter material that is pushed by content providers, keeping only the items that match materials you have seen before.

Net powerhouses Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are trying their best, too, not to leave their users deluged with information. Future versions of Netscape's and Microsoft's Net-accessing software will come with filters that will sort E-mail--last night's football scores in a ''sports'' folder, say--automatically. And tidbits that are gleaned from the Net might come with ''expiration dates'' so that news clippings more than three months old, for example, could be automatically deleted. How thoughtful. Software that cleans up after itself.

By Paul M. Eng in New York, with bureau reports


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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