In an article published over the weekend, the New York Times' Cliffor J. Levy describes what he calls Russian authorities' newest tactics for quelling dissent: Russian police are apparently using piracy investigations as a way to confiscate computers from advocacy groups. Levy reports that though Russian security officials say the raids are a reflection of their concerns about the genuinely high level of piracy in Russia, they rarely, if ever, carry out raids on groups or parties that support the government.
Though this in itself is a worrying trend, the most unsettling part of the report is not that this is happening, but that Microsoft is allegedly helping the Russian authorities in these raids. In one instance, environmental group Baikal Wave purchased legal Microsoft software in an effort to avoid raids based on piracy investigations but were raided regardless of this fact. When they asked Microsoft for help, the computer giant refused.
"Microsoft did not want to help us, which would have been the right thing to do," NYT cites Marina Rikhvanova, Baikal Environmental Wave co-chairwoman as saying. "They said these issues had to be handled by the security services."
Raids on Baikal Wave's offices took place in January, when the group was organizing protests against Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to reopen a paper factory that had polluted nearby Lake Baikal.
Microsoft has since released a statement responding to the report and says it is taking the issues brought to light by the New York Times seriously.
"When we grant powers-of-attorney to outside counsel to aid our antipiracy efforts, we vet candidates carefully, we bind them contractually to strict standards and protocols, we train them and we monitor their activities," said Kevin Kutz, Director of Public Affairs at Microsoft. "They are accountable to us, and if their actions do not comport with professional ethics, anticorruption laws, or Microsoft policies, we terminate our relationship with them."
Kutz goes on to say that Microsoft ensures due process is followed in antipiracy cases that involve Microsoft products, and that the case involving Baikal Wave was no different. Redmond says it will take a number of steps to improve the situation in Russia:
- Increase monitoring and training of the local counsel who have powers of attorney for our antipiracy program, with more clearly defined responsibilities and accountabilities.
- To prevent individuals or organizations from fraudulently claiming to represent Microsoft, publish on our Russia Web site the names and certifications of authorized representatives.
- Increase awareness of Microsoft’s Infodonor program among NGOs in Russia, particularly outside the capital cities. This past March we held an NGO Roundtable with Russian NGOs to describe the Infodonor program — which makes software available to NGOs with no charge by Microsoft — and to explain our antipiracy policies. While some human rights organizations have already benefited, there are many more like the Youth Human Rights Movement who have expressed interest in participating. We will reach out to Y.H.R.M. and any other group interested in Infodonor and we will continue our engagement with human rights NGOs and others to gather feedback on ways to improve our antipiracy program.
[UPDATE] Microsoft's Brad Smith today blogged about the New York Times article and said that as General Counsel for Microsoft "it was not the type of story that felt good to read." Smith went on to say Redmond would move quickly to remove any ability to "leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain."
Whatever the circumstances of the particular cases the New York Times described, we want to be clear that we unequivocally abhor any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain. We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behavior.
Smith writes that the first step toward change is accepting responsibility and assuming accountability for the company's anti-piracy work, the good and the bad. Smith says that though specific facts regarding the issues discussed have yet to be determined, Microsoft will be hiring an international law firm that has not been involved in the anti-piracy work to conduct an independent investigation.
Microsoft also said it will help protect non-government organizations from raids like the ones detailed by the New York Times by creating a new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal copies of Microsoft products. As a further aid to NGOs, Smith says Microsoft is creating in Russia a new NGO Legal Assistance Program focused specifically on helping NGOs document to the authorities that this new software license proves that they have legal software.