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.
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."
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.
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."
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.)