Russia rights groups get help from unlikely champion: Microsoft
Microsoft yesterday announced it will provide free software and legal assistance to struggling groups in Russia and 11 other countries.
Embattled Russian civil society activists were full of rare praise for Microsoft today, which has stepped in to protect nongovernmental groups (NGOs) and independent journalists who experience official harassment.Skip to next paragraph
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Under Russia's anti-piracy laws, authorities have repeatedly seized the computers of activists and journalists critical of the government to search for pirated Microsoft software – carting away years of archives, and, in at least one case, shutting down an organization all together.
After months of pressure from rights groups, who blamed the software giant for being complicit in Russia's use of anti-piracy laws to quell dissent, Microsoft yesterday announced it will provide free software and legal assistance to struggling groups in Russia and 11 other countries. The "unilateral license" will be immediately available, and applies to software already installed on the groups' computers – regardless of its origin.
"With the existence of this license, Microsoft is clearly articulating its position that we do not wish to engage in anti-piracy actions against NGOs and small, independent media in these 12 countries that are using Microsoft software for their business needs," Microsoft's deputy general counsel Nancy Anderson said in a statement. "We are taking specific steps to discourage any such actions in these jurisdictions."
Too little, too late for some
For Anastasia Denisova, director of ETnIKA, an NGO in southwest Russia that championed minority rights, it's welcome news – though too late to save her group. She says her organization was forced to close its doors after a long and exhausting court battle over "software piracy" charges – in which the local Microsoft representative worked against her, she alleges – that ended in acquittal last February.
"Our workers were just too frightened by all the pressure on our organization to continue," she says. "I myself was facing a six-year jail term, and had no time to think about anything but my own defense."
Denisova's ordeal came to the attention of the Washington-based Human Rights First, which in turn put pressure on Microsoft. Denisova says the subsequent withdrawal of Microsoft's assistance to the prosecution was crucial to the ultimate collapse of the case against her.
"It can make a difference," she says. "I'm going to do everything to make sure my colleagues around the country who are still working are made aware of Microsoft's offer.... It's too late for us, but I believe this decision by Microsoft will ease the situation for many other public organizations that are struggling."