Microsoft to Give Free Software to Prevent Rights Abuses

Microsoft logoThe Microsoft Corporation is taking measures to prevent Russian law enforcement agencies from persecuting human rights organizations and media outlets under the guise of fighting piracy, reports.

In an official blog post on Monday, Senior Vice President and Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said that the company was disturbed at news that its own lawyers have possibly been engaged in colluding with the Russian authorities to suppress activists and journalists deemed undesirable by the state. In particular, an article by the New York Times cited a raid on the Baikal Environmental Wave, during which Russian police confiscated a dozen computers under the premise that the group was using stolen Microsoft software:

After the raid, the group reached out to Microsoft’s Moscow office, seeking help in defending itself.

Baikal Wave asked Microsoft to confirm that its software was legal, but the company would not, angering the environmentalists. And Microsoft’s local lawyer in Siberia offered testimony to the police in the case on the value of the software that was said to have been stolen.

Whatever the legitimacy of these claims, said Smith, Microsoft has chosen to err on the side of caution and provide a free blanket software license to all non-governmental organizations in Russia. The license doesn’t even require an application, so all organizations are automatically covered.

Microsoft had previously, in 2008, denied knowledge of practices by the Russian authorities of harassing NGOs and journalists and using the fight against piracy as an excuse. Theoretically, the new blanket license should make it harder for Russian law enforcement to wantonly confiscate computers from advocacy organizations.

Ironically, reports on Tuesday also surfaced that a series of Russian human rights organizations have received letters from regional prosecutors demanding documentation about the groups’ financial and organizational activities. As Elena Panfilova of Transparency International’s Russia branch told Ekho Moskvy radio, the affected organizations include the Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights, the electoral watchdog Golos, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Transparency International itself. Why the groups are being examined was unclear, said Panfilova.