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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.

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Denisova also claims that Microsoft's local representative cooperated with prosecutors during her long ordeal, a detailed description of which can be found in English on her group's website: "I cannot say whether Microsoft's Moscow office knows what their local representatives are doing in the provinces, or if they just close their eyes to these cases," she says.

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Software piracy is rife in Russia. A report this year by the International Intellectual Property Alliance, an industry group, found that illegal software dominates 67 percent of the Russian market, one of the world's highest rates.

"There is no culture of using legal production in Russia. As long as we've had computers we've been used to getting software on the cheap, from pirate producers," says Alexei Lukatksy, a Moscow-based computer consultant. "Even businesses, a very high percentage of them, still use illegal software."

Microsoft lobby

Companies like Microsoft lobbied long and hard to convince Russian lawmakers to pass tough antipiracy laws and goad police into enforcing them.

Microsoft lawyer Smith's defensive tone Monday suggests the company feels it failed to perceive the potential for abuse. "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," he wrote.

The central problem is a corrupt and authoritarian Russian political culture in which good laws can be made to do bad things, says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"Russia is not a country that lives by laws, but rather by informal rules and arrangements," she says. "It's also a place where corruption is woven into the very fabric of life. And the authorities, who hardly live by the law themselves, take advantage of that. Almost everyone evades the law in some way, hence almost everyone is vulnerable."

Last May the judge threw out the case against Denisova for lack of evidence. Analysts say that victory cost her organization more than a year of closure and near bankruptcy. It came only after Transparency International, the international corruption watchdog, and Memorial, Russia's largest human rights group, sent a letter to Microsoft asking the company to "clarify" its position on the case.

"Denisova got off, but think of all the damage done to her," says Ms. Lipman. "We need to understand that Russia is not a hard authoritarian regime, but one that's concerned with minimizing the political challenges. Cases like this create an inauspicious environment, to discourage people from engaging in public activism. So, yes, a few hardy souls like Denisova can persevere, and even win a bit of justice, but only by giving up all their efforts to defend human rights in order to defend their own. The message to everyone remains clear: behave yourselves, or else."

While NGO activists say Microsoft's new policies sound good, the computer software giant was never their main problem.

"I welcome this decision, but I am sure that authorities will find some other mechanism to pressure us," says Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran Russian human rights campaigner. "We are already bracing ourselves for a new wave of official inspections of public organizations. I have no doubt that as long as we live under this regime, we'll be under pressure."

(This article was edited after posting to correct the name of Microsoft lawyer Brad Smith.)