Guest column: 'Net Buzz

Next time Melinda Gates can't come up with the perfect gift idea for her man Bill (what a nightmare that must be) she should consider buying him some disappearing ink.

Make that Disappearing Inc., a San Francisco-based Internet start-up that, had it been part of the Gates collection several years back, just might have spared the Microsoft chairman a spanking from the Department of Justice.

"We make e-mail go away, under the user's control," says Maclen Marvit, CEO of Disappearing, whose investors include Compaq Chairman Ben Rosen, Angel Investors LLP and Red Rock Ventures. The e-mail that Marvit's firm "erases" can be any a customer might wish to have disappear, but generally the target is loose-lipped business chatter of the type that increasingly loses lawsuits or puts the world's richest man on the witness stand.

"We can make those e-mails expire off your machine, my machine and all the machines in the middle; the backup tapes, the CDs, all that stuff," Marvit says. "We use encryption in such a way that the message becomes shredded over time."

Details are being guarded at this point, Marvit says, but the essence of Disappearing is that the company will control one of the keys necessary to read an encrypted e-mail message. After a period of time set by the sender or the sender's employer, that key will be destroyed, rendering all copies of the message an unreadable "pile of bits." Even the sender and Disappearing will be unable to resurrect the message once its time has run out. (You can be sure the lawyers will contest that point: "What do you MEAN they can't get it back?")The system will work with leading e-mail products such as Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, Lotus Notes and Domino, and Sendmail. Disappearing expects to begin beta testing in the fourth quarter and will launch in the first quarter.

Will recipients know that the e-mail they just received carries an expiration date? "That, too, is up to the [sender and/or company policy]," Marvit says. "They can choose to allow you to know or not, but in general, we think that people will know."

One would think so, given that the alternative - erasing e-mail from a person's in-box without his knowledge - would almost certainly be considered rude, even in the cutthroat business world.

What about any paper copies that might be made?

"If I send you an e-mail and you print it, that is what we refer to as 'the saboteur problem,' " Marvit acknowledges. "It is important to understand what problem we solve and what problem we don't solve. We don't prevent people from photographing the screen, and we don't prevent them from printing e-mails."

But the fact that the system isn't foolproof - or idiot-proof - doesn't mean that it won't become a valuable business tool.

"This isn't about being adversarial," says Marvit's brother Dave, a Disappearing co-founder. "It's about people who want to communicate with each other privately and not have to worry that sometime hence Ken Starr is going to come along and ask for all the records."

So that gift suggestion goes for you, too, Hillary.

Don't know about you, but Buzz wishes these fellows would make up their minds about what constitutes good service. First they give us pay-at-the-pump systems designed to speed customers in and out.

Now they want us to hang around and browse the Web?

You can prime the 'Net Buzz pump by contacting McNamara at +1-508-820-7471 or buzz@nww.com.

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