Microsoft Changes Policy; No Longer Supports Russian Crackdowns on NGO’s
Copyright infringement and software piracy often seem bloodless issues; teenagers downloading video games or people selling burned DVDs. In Russia, however, accusations of copyright infringement have served as a way for the police to target and harass organizations it dislikes.
On September 12th, a New York Times article described how Microsoft’s attempts to crack down on software piracy in Russia were contributing to the Russian government’s attempts to crack down on political dissenters. Russian police would raid the offices of opposition groups, newspapers, blogs, and other NGOs and seize their computers, claiming they were looking for pirated Windows software. Pro-government groups rarely suffered such raids. Even if the police did not find illegal software, they rarely returned the computers. In some cases, the police would report illegal software before they had even examined the computers in question. While the charges would rarely stick, the disruptive effects of the seizures lingered; disrupting finances, records, and the ability of the groups to continue their efforts.
Microsoft lawyers tacitly supported the police actions and claimed they were required to cooperate under Russian law. When environmental activist group Baikal Wave suffered such a raid, they contacted Microsoft, sending their receipts and records of legal purchase of Windows software and asking the company to intervene. Microsoft refused and forwarded the documents to the Russian authorities, who already had them.
The next day, a post on the Official Microsoft Blog saw Brad Smith (Senior Vice President and Microsoft General Counsel) respond to the article, which outlined Microsoft’s direct response to the issue. Not only will Microsoft conduct a review of its anti-piracy measures, it will issue free unilateral licenses to NGOs in various countries (including Russia) for Windows software. In fact, this new license will be automatic; even those NGOs that are not aware of the protection will be protected by it. Brad Smith stated strenuously that Microsoft had no desire to support the persecution of NGO’s (and took the opportunity to plug the company’s numerous donations of software to NGO’s before this incident).
While this seems like a startlingly generous move by Microsoft, the timing makes it seem like an attempt to head off potentially severe PR damage. On the other hand, the company is giving out free software, and the new licensing system should efficiently stop any attempts by governments to claim NGOs are pirating Windows software. They can always find another reason to go after opposition organizations, but they cannot take advantage of Microsoft’s support any longer. Brilliant move by Microsoft, but we can’t forget that the company allowed these raids to go on until the New York Times called them on it.