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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region May 23, 1999

Junk busting

Fending off the frenzy

Ron Guilmette is that rare Internet user who loves getting spam. ''If there's junk e-mail out there, I want to know about it,'' he says gleefully. That's because Guilmette's company, E-Scrub Technologies of Roseville, California, is in the vanguard of a new movement that aims to improve the quality and relevance of the information that pours in through our PCs, mailboxes, TVs, and telephones - while limiting the quantity. E-Scrub's product, known as Deadbolt, is a sophisticated spam filter. And that has turned Guilmette into an aficionado of unsolicited e-mail. He can spot a shotgunned come-on for Prescription-Free Herbal Viagra quicker than you can click delete.

Signal-to-noise ratio is one way to think about how much relevant information finds its way into your cranium, compared with irrelevant dreck. How many phone calls do you get from friends and colleagues versus telemarketers and salespeople? When you search Yahoo, how many of the results match what you're looking for?

Noise has been overwhelming signal lately. In just the fourth quarter of last year, more than 600,000 people registered their intention to launch new Web sites, and a survey last January found 43,230,000 active Web domains. Last fall, a TV-monitoring report stated that in prime time on the four biggest broadcast networks, an average hour contained a record 15 minutes and 44 seconds of ads and promotions. A recent survey by Pitney-Bowes found that an individual worker can send and receive up to 190 e-mails a day and reported that 60 percent of respondents felt overwhelmed by the stack of messages in their digital in-box.

To manage that kind of influx of information - and avoid what the writer David Shenk has dubbed ''data smog'' - we need better filtering tools. Call it junk busting. This new generation of filters will help block content that is offensive or inappropriate for children, bypass unwanted marketing pitches, and sort through reams of news to present and prioritize only what matters to you. The best of the tools will give the user complete control over what's important and what's not.

Several nascent services illustrate junk busting's potential and how it's likely to evolve. You may already own a VCR from General Electric or Panasonic that, as it records a program, marks the advertisements. When you replay the tape, the VCR automatically speeds through commercials. That's a rudimentary kind of junk busting, though; it doesn't give the user much control. As television broadcasting goes digital, it's possible that you may be able to explain to your VCR what kind of commercials you are interested in seeing. Perhaps you're in the market for a new sport utility vehicle; the VCR would retain the relevant ads. Or you might want to record only commercials that had won awards from ad-industry groups or trade magazines, which would ensure that you stayed current with some of the more amusing and hip spots. How could you joke with your friends at the bar if you hadn't seen the series of Budweiser frog commercials?

Several regional telephone companies now offer a service that, when combined with caller ID, purports to cut down on the number of telemarketing calls. Ameritech's Privacy Manager, introduced last fall, can forward phone solicitors to a message that says you would like to be removed from their list, then politely hangs up. ''People seem to like the fact that your phone doesn't ever ring with telemarketing calls,'' says Frank Mitchell, an Ameritech spokesman. Like the VCRs that offer the ''commercial advance'' feature, this is a brute-force mode of blocking information.

A more sophisticated offering would let the user stipulate, for example, that telemarketers seeking money for charities - or even specific charities - could get through while those peddling new credit cards would be rebuffed.

On the Internet, filtering is slightly more advanced. A customized news service like NewsPage, from a Burlington company called NewsEdge, lets users dictate what topics they're interested in, then builds a Web page containing the day's most important stories on those topics. Each day, about 50,000 stories from 2,000 different news sources (such as Dow Jones, Reuters, and the Associated Press) pour in to NewsEdge's ''refinery.'' Software figures out what stories fit what topics, human beings help rank the stories within a topic, and then the service automatically builds a personalized hit parade of relevant news.

''As the volume of information we process keeps increasing, you have to seek out better filtering or you get swamped,'' says Daniel O'Reilly, vice president and chief technology officer at NewsEdge. The goal is to give you exactly what you want, when you want it. Before long, says O'Reilly, NewsEdge's refinery will be able to sort through audio and video content, too.

Companies like E-Scrub are devising increasingly accurate ways to weed out junk e-mail, but there are two hurdles: The products aren't yet widely offered by Internet service providers, and they're not yet easy enough to use. But an effort to eliminate spam from Usenet - a sprawling and popular network of bulletin boards - has already been phenomenally successful. On a typical day, Spam Hippo, as the blocking software is called, plucks out about 150,000 pieces of commercial detritus from a torrent of 575,000 raw postings.

Today, there's even software that can excise banner ads from the Web pages you visit. One product, Intermute, from a one-man Cambridge company called Internet Mute, claims to neutralize more than 90 percent of the banners you would see on an average surfing safari. There are always people who want to control what they see, says Barry Jaspan, president of Internet Mute. ''I'm that kind of person,'' he says. ''I wanted this product, and all my friends wanted it.''

In 10 years, it's likely that this first wave of filtering technology will look ridiculously simple. Users will exercise subtle and sophisticated control over the news and marketing they consume, choosing from a variety of different screens.

The result: less information but with more relevance and resonance. If the late 20th century bore witness to an information explosion, in the early 21st, we'll finally get flak jackets.

By Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner is a Scott Kirsner is a Boston-based contributing editor of Wired magazine and Fast Company. His e-mail address is kirsner@att.net.

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