Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Alex Alben and H.R. 1955: is there a synergy between Internet censorship and corporate ideology/profit?

As discussed below, Alex Alben wrote a column in the Seattle Times that was very critical of "9/11 conspiracy theories," claiming they originate in Arab media and likening the user-generated content on the Internet to Third Reich propaganda.

I am concerned that the greatest potential harm of H.R. 1955 / S. 1959, the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007," is censorship of user-generated content on the Internet, based on a claims that it is propaganda that promotes violence and terrorism.

As shown below, Alben has recently written two additional columns in the Seattle Times in which he is critical of user-generated content on the Internet. In this post, I raise the question of whether Alben's views on 9/11 are motivated by financial and/or ideological interest in restriction of user-generated content on the Internet.

Alex Alben is former head of government affairs for RealNetworks. Prior to that, he was General Counsel and V.P. Business Affairs for Starwave Corporation, where he helped launch popular web sites such as and Prior to law school, he was a research assistant for Walter Conkrite at CBS News.

As reflected in Alben's testimony to Congress for RealNetworks, that company's business model was based on partnerships with "content partners."

The "content partners" were mainly large media outfits, and Real Networks' business model was based on making money for the content partners:

I don't know how well RealNetworks is doing now. I know I don't like their product because it is bloatware that doesn't allow download, and wonder why my city council and school board use their product to publish hearings. They don't seem to be doing very well:

All this is not to say that Alben has an interest in RealNetworks and that this influences his current activism against a free Internet. (As the GNU/Linux folks would say, "free" as in beer and "free" as in open.) I'm just saying that Alben's background is more in news and the Internet as businesses than as information for citizens' involvement in their own governance. He still describes himself as a "high-tech executive."

Alben's wife Ellen Alben was involved in losses to Infospace shareholders by taking an ethically questionable demotion to avoid insider trading regulations:

• InfoSpace general counsel Ellen Alben demanded a demotion to skirt trading restrictions and made $1.6 million selling her stock. When her successor urged her not to sell, he said Alben brushed him off.

My point being that Alex Alben has another relation to the Internet as a business. My point also being, perhaps, that I don't need people who spend their time making money telling me that my time spent trying to save my country, without pay or any monetary goal, makes me a dupe of Arab media, an anti-Semite, or a Nazi. (And how racist, ethnocentric, and narrow-minded can one be to use the term "Arab media" as a perjorative term.)

Alben ran for Congress in the Eighth Congressional District of Washington, the seat now held by Dave Reichert. It's a coincidence, perhaps, that Reichart sponsored this bill, but it makes me wonder whether H.R. 1955 might have a hidden agenda of making the Internet more lucrative for companies like Microsoft and RealNetworks.

Dave Reichert is co-sponsor of H.R. 1955, the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007."

One of the findings of this bill is that the Internet is a danger:

The Congress finds the following:

(3) The Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens.

Reichert states:

Because of the freedoms of our society and the interconnected world we live in, radical ideas spread easily. These ideas can come from overseas or from within the United States. They can come from within prisons, inside of isolated religious or ethnic enclaves, and on the internet. These ideas reach people in the privacy of their homes via the internet and can be similarly accessed by vulnerable individuals in schools and libraries.

In July 2007, Alex Alben wrote a guest column in the Seattle Times about 9/11, stating that "a disturbing number of conspiracy theories are gaining a toehold in our collective consciousness."

In this guest column, Alben claimed that the user-generated content on the Internet was spreading propaganda about 9/11 that began in the Arab media, and bemoaned the fact that these "conspiracy theories" now "heavily outweigh official news and government accounts" on the Internet." Alben makes a spurious and outrageous comparison of this situation to "Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine for the Third Reich."

While 9/11 theories began in the Arab media and incubated on the Internet, they now have begun to creep into traditional media via "documentaries," claiming that either elements of the American government, or "Wall Street," or shadowy international coalitions were behind the multiplane hijackings that led to more than 3,000 deaths in New York City, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.

In today's media environment, fueled by user-generated content that is easily accessed on the Internet, conspiracy theories won't simply fade away if we ignore them or dismiss them as "fringe" history. In fact, if you do a Google search on "Flight 77," you will find that the conspiracy Web sites in the first 100 search returns heavily outweigh official news and government accounts. Lies perpetuate lies and gain a life of their own — a principle observed by Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine for the Third Reich.

Over three days in August 2007, The Seattle Times published a number of responses to Alben's guest column, all but one of which were critical of his aspersions on citizens questioning the government's incredible claims about 9/11.

Interestingly, the only letter in support of Alben's column, in the first of three links below, was from a news producer for a local radio station, 710 Kiro. Local, but:

710 KIRO is a Bonneville-owned radio station and an affiliate of CBS Radio News. With our network satellite facility and internet audio streaming capability, 710 KIRO is heard 'round the world!

Bonneville is based in Salt Lake City and owns many 31 radio stations and television

I'm sure the people on the board of directors are fine people, but I don't need them telling me what I should read and hear on the Internet.

This producer has nothing of substance to say about 9/11 questions or Alben's column, other than that he agrees with Alben and thinks that information on the Internet is inherently inaccurate. Unlike, he implies, the information on his station, including its parroting of CBS News parroting the government.

Ether removes inhibition

Thanks to both The Seattle Times and Alex Alben for his concise assessment of Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists. I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment of petulant partisanship of those attempting to advance bizarre, wild theories about the terrorist attacks.

It's also a useful reminder about lack of accountability and/or accuracy of information posted on the Internet.

— Phil X. Vandervort, news producer, Newsradio 710 KIRO, Bonneville-Seattle

The other letters to the editor in the three links, below, by contrast, are substantive and thoughtful.

Coincidence or not, the only favorable response to Alben's smear piece was from a producer of corporate news.

Alex Alben wrote two columns in the Seattle Times earlier this year, both of which are hostile to user-generated content on the Internet.

Editorials & Opinion: Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Guest columnist
War in the time of video
By Alex Alben
Special to The Times

The professional journalist has become an endangered species, threatened by new technologies for the capture and distribution of digital video."

. . .

Many of us have become so immersed in the rapid-fire culture of Internet video distribution that we forget why reporters and editors matter.

When I worked for Walter Cronkite of CBS News in the early 1980s, the senior news producers gathered each morning over their sweet rolls and coffee to determine where to send reporters that day. Every "Evening News" broadcast benefited from extensive fact-checking, research, balancing of interviews from a variety of sources, and the expertise of an editorial team that carefully considered the context of each story and where it fit in the "big picture" of news from around the world.

"Truth," as Winston Churchill opined, "is the first casualty of war," but traditional news outlets provide editors and publishers to act as filters to take in raw data and create a finished product before it is passed through to public eyes.

Now, with the advent of YouTube and self-publishing Web sites, every video upload is presented as having equal weight. Some video producers have a clear political ax to grind. Others seek to capitalize on a disturbing image, without revealing who took the picture or whether the incident might have been staged.

Finally, context counts. It's impossible to make sense of a random explosion in a civilian shopping market without first understanding the nature of the conflict and its history.

Editorials & Opinion: Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Guest columnist
Digital-media overload keeps our heads spinning
By Alex Alben
Special to The Times

Today's digital democracy is characterized by more free expression than ever, yet it has created a dangerous degree of polarization that threatens to stifle a productive democratic debate on the key issues we face at home and abroad.

That is the paradox of our age of "always on" connected devices: We are plugged in to hundreds of media channels and millions of Web sites, yet we have to wonder if the center will hold in an era when we are free to tailor our news sources to fit our personal preferences.

Let me explain: In the old days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, three national networks, two newsweeklies and four major daily newspapers framed our political debate, supplemented by scores of special-interest magazines and small publications. The barriers to entry to reach an audience of more than 100,000 people were great, requiring access to a printing press and distribution system, or ownership of a broadcast license and facility. Yet, these high barriers allowed editors to create news products that sought to appeal to a broad swath of Americans, spanning political parties and other divides.

. . .

The byproduct of diversity has been to increase the level of shrillness and narrow-minded megaphones. This applies to both poles of our political spectrum.

. . .

Media outlets today are struggling to adapt to new technologies and simultaneously redefine their mission in the Internet age. While the emergence of new voices allows us to look at the world in a new perspective, we have lost centrist institutions that used to remind us of what we have in common. As a kid, I would run to the mailbox to get Time magazine to see what was going on in the nation and the world at the time of Watergate and Vietnam. Today, one can get the spin one wants by tuning into the right channel in the right medium.

In an environment characterized by YouTube and The Drudge Report, it's time for independent daily newspapers and radio-television networks to both master new technologies and resist the temptation to target audiences based on political leanings. Failing that, our politics will be increasingly polarized, leaving us only the illusion that we are well-informed.

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