Why is Microsoft offering free software to Russian NGOs?
The Russian authorities have been using antipiracy laws to target government critics, and local activists say Microsoft officials have aided in the process.
Microsoft, which activists in Russia accuse of assisting in a wave of selective antipiracy prosecutions against Russian government critics, has offered free software to nongovernmental organizations and independent journalists as a way to end the problem.Skip to next paragraph
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Microsoft's offer on Monday was cautiously welcomed by Russian activists, and followed a storm of controversy stirred up Sunday by allegations in The New York Times that the company's local representatives and lawyers have sometimes cooperated with authorities aiming to shut down public organizations they don't like, using allegations that pirated software was installed on their computers.
Microsoft "must accept responsibility and assume accountability for our antipiracy work, including the good and the bad," Microsoft's chief lawyer Brad Smith said in the statement. "To prevent nongovernment organizations from falling victim to nefarious actions taken in the guise of antipiracy enforcement, Microsoft will create a new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal copies of our products."
He added that the company plans to retain an outside law firm to review its overall antipiracy policies, and will address the special circumstances in Russia by setting up an "NGO Legal Assistance Program" to help small public groups prove to authorities that the programs running in their computers are now legal, regardless of their origin.
"Better late than never," says Anastasia Denisova, leader of a youth group that works for tolerance in the ethnically diverse southern region of Krasnodar. "I'm glad if it's true that Microsoft has decided to support human rights."
The New York Times story details the prosecution of Baikal Wave, an award-winning Siberian environmental group whose activism persuaded then-President Vladimir Putin to change the route of an oil pipeline away from the sensitive shoreline of Lake Baikal.
But dozens of Russian NGO's tell similar tales.
Liliya Shabanova, head of the grassroots voters' rights association Golos, says the group's chapter in the central Russian city of Samara has been paralyzed for nearly two years by an anti-piracy case that she describes as "proven false."
"It's just a good pretext to prevent people from going about their work," she says.
Ms. Denisova's organization had suffered from repeated tax audits and other inspections for years, which she describes as "unrelieved harassment." But she says local authorities, wielding new antipiracy laws, raided their offices last year searching for illegal software.
"Five men from the special services kicked down our door, and without introducing themselves seized our computers and took them away in unmarked cars," she says. "They subsequently visited my home and confiscated my personal computer and a notebook belonging to my boyfriend."