Rob Glaser: Freedom fighter

If anyone doubted whether Americans still held their basic beliefs dear, Rob Glaser put that worry to rest last week in Washington.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
If anyone doubted whether Americans still held their basic beliefs dear, Rob Glaser put that worry to rest last week in Washington.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the chief executive officer of RealNetworks told the nation in televised hearings that if Microsoft's ambition in Internet video streaming was not checked, the software giant would build a toll road around the free flow of information upon which an open society depends.

The job, really, that Glaser wanted for himself.

Although he has been heartily criticized for his adventures in the Capitol, Glaser emerges as one of the folk heroes of the Digital Age. Sure, his company's stock plummeted and people close or at Microsoft have said he exaggerated the truth in his testimony. But he came closer to defining the American ideal.

To recap, Glaser appeared in front of the Judiciary Committee to explain how Microsoft's moves into video streaming were impacting the multimedia market. Glaser founded RealNetworks, a pioneer in streaming audio and video data across the Internet. Microsoft owns a competing technology called Windows Media Player along with 10 percent of RealNetworks. Although an investor, Microsoft, he alleged, deliberately sabotaged Windows Media Player to ensure that his company's products would not work as well.

Unlike other high-tech CEOs who have traveled the Washington circuit lately, Glaser didn't coat his statements too deeply--or, at least, not too effectively--in principle. The past year has seen a succession of high-tech execs touting sanctimonious explanations for everything from the need for more foreign worker visas to the right to selective capital gains reductions. Their pork requests come wrapped in high moral tones or, failing that, the implied threat of a stock market crash.

Not Glaser. No "Extremism in the defense of HDTV high-resolution data streams is no vice" emerged from his lips. Instead, he defended the American Dream. That is, the opportunity to make a pile of money in a short amount of time, and preferably through a gimmick. He seeks the kind of money and status that makes the neighbors worship you like a living god.

This dream has long woven a thread throughout culture and can explain everything from the westward migration to late-night diamond salesmen. Freedom of choice, after all, is both a Jeffersonian ideal and the slogan 7-11 adopted to replace "Hot to Go." (Which, when you think about it, would have been a great phrase to throw into the Declaration of Independence.)

"I believe, where citizens can use these new technologies to communicate, freedom of speech and democracy are enhanced," Glaser told the Senate committee. Then, he added, "RealNetworks has benefited from this process."

The last sentence is the kicker. In the RealNetworks point of view, the future holds a day when Americans will take Ph.D. courses across the Internet, but also will be able to get all 13 cartoon versions of The Hobbit or the Kathy Smith Workout archive on demand. Who's to judge what constitutes right or wrong? Glaser is a technological visionary who wants in on the ground floor. From photographs, it looks like the holder of three degrees from Yale didn't even shave for the event, which made the appearance even better.

But detractors followed soon afterward. Sen. Robert Toricelli (D-New Jersey) submitted an affidavit from Paul Maritz, group vice president at Microsoft, that said Glaser offered to give up his day of testimony in exchange for a deal with the company.

"Mr. Glaser said he was prepared to 'negotiate all night if that what it takes [emphasis added]' to come to terms with Microsoft?If the negotiations he proposed resulted in an agreement between the two companies, he would not testify the next day," Maritz said in the affidavit.

Detractors also pointed out that Glaser teetered on hypocrisy. The man made millions in stock options during the ten years he worked at Microsoft. In addition, defying the company caused RealNetworks to plummet in the stock market. Competitors claimed that he never had the permission to mention them in his numerous follow-up press conferences.

Still, what do these points add up to? His main crime seems to be that he wanted to foist his Internet technology onto the public over Microsoft's, to slip in while the getting is good. And where is the harm in that?