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.
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."
After the New York Times reported in September on Microsoft's complicity in the piracy prosecution of the internationally acclaimed Siberian environmental group Baikal Wave, the company announced it would change its policy.
Tad Stahnke, Human Rights First's director of policy and programs, says that all charges have been dropped in the Baikal Wave trial, and Russian NGOs have not seen a single antipiracy prosecution since Microsoft announced the change in policy.
"This is a tentative victory," he says. "But Microsoft needs to follow through on its promise to oppose antipiracy prosecutions of civil society organizations and journalists."
He says that Microsoft needs to send an "unambiguous message" to Russian authorities that it will no longer take part in prosecutions of NGOs, and that it needs to extend its outreach to groups in Russia's far-flung hinterland, to ensure they are all made aware of the free software and legal advice the company is offering.
He adds that Microsoft should complete its internal investigation into the many allegations that the company's representatives around Russia colluded with authorities bent on using intellectual property laws to shut down civil society groups.
Microsoft's Russia headquarters declined to make a spokesperson available Tuesday to discuss past problems and current efforts to correct them.
But in an unattributed statement provided by its Moscow press office, the company said that "we believe we have made clear to law enforcement agencies in Russia. . . that we support strong anti-piracy laws while also ensuring respect for fundamental human and civil rights."
Piracy a convenient cloak for repression
Mr. Stahnke's group has documented 10 cases over the past three years in which civil society groups, independent media, and even an Islamic university were targeted by police under antipiracy laws. In many of those cases, Microsoft either failed to help the accused or actively assisted prosecutors.
"The threat has been there for all Russian NGOs, that at any moment police can break down your door, seize your computers, and accuse you of piracy," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an activist with For Human Rights, a Moscow-based grassroots group.
Mr. Ikhlov says Russian authorities have plenty of other pretexts to harass civil society groups, and he doesn't expect their position to become less precarious.
Still, he says, the charge of "piracy" – with the backing of a huge multinational corporation – was a very convenient method for targeting activists, and losing it will make their job more complicated, he says.
"Microsoft's change of heart is a generous one, and I applaud it. But if they'd done it three years ago, a lot of evil would have been avoided," Ikhlov adds.