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Analysis & Opinion
16.09.10 Killing Me Softly
By Tom Balmforth

Microsoft has pledged to provide Russian civil society with free software after Russian law enforcement was alleged to be using a crackdown on software piracy as a pretext for bullying politically out-of-favor NGOs and independent journalists. Microsoft says it will launch an investigation into the affair and craft new measures to stop a possible repeat. But civil society representatives are skeptical that the software giant’s measures will actually help them, and claim Microsoft ignored their previous appeals for help even though they showed adequate evidence that their software was fully licensed.

Microsoft lawyers in Russia this year ignored various appeals from NGOs and journalists who claimed that police were deliberately sabotaging their work by confiscating their computers under the pretext that they were running unlicensed Microsoft software, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Russia’s crackdown on software piracy has slowly been gathering momentum since it began in 2007, and more than 3,000 criminal raids have been carried out in a single year, the Top Tech technology Web site reported. For the first time ever Russia opened up an investigation into a major foreign company (LG Electronics) for software piracy at the end of last month.

Nonetheless, the circumstances of computer confiscations from certain journalists and NGOs suggest the raids were politically motivated. The Baikal Wave environmental group, set up in 1990 to campaign against the infamous pulp and paper mill on the shores of pristine Lake Baikal, was raided by police in January this year, just as ecological protests were reaching a head. In February this year Prime Minister Vladimir Putin oversaw changes to the law allowing the mill to resume production of paper and pulp, its most polluting process, supposedly in order to create more jobs. The Irkutsk-based NGO says the mill will destroy the lake’s delicate and unique ecosystem and dismisses the job potential of the industry. It is committed to protesting against the legal amendments. But during the January raid the NGO’s activity was crippled after 12 computers were confiscated and its Web site was taken offline.

Computers were also seized from two opposition newspapers in Samara with the help of a Microsoft lawyer, Clifford Levy reported for The New York Times on Sunday. “As the ploy grows common, the authorities are receiving key assistance from an unexpected partner: Microsoft itself,” he wrote. The software giant also ignored an appeal from Baikal Environmental Wave, but since Sunday has tried to set the record straight as publically as possible. “Whatever the circumstances of the particular cases the New York Times described, we want to be clear that we unequivocally abhor any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain,” Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said in his blog on Monday.

Microsoft treads a tricky line between backing crackdowns on widespread software piracy while behaving ethically. An estimated 41 percent of the world’s software is pirated, and last year Microsoft lost an estimated $1 billion to the practice, the AFP news agency reported. Russia remains a software piracy haven, although the amount of unlicensed software has dropped from 80 percent to 68 percent in the last three years.

Microsoft said it will continue to give free licensing to NGOs, but will transfer licenses to them automatically, thus removing the old application step which requires navigating complicated bureaucracy. “We will also make it available to appropriate journalists’ organizations in order to include small newspapers and independent media. Because it’s automatic, they won’t need to take any steps to benefit from its terms,” reads Smith’s blog. “To prevent non-government organizations from falling victim to nefarious actions taken in the guise of anti-piracy enforcement, Microsoft will create a new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal copies of our products…With this new software license, we effectively change the factual situation at hand. Now our information will fully exonerate any qualifying NGO, by showing that it has a valid license to our software.”

But activists are unsure the move will have any impact. “To be honest, the measure which they have proposed doesn’t protect non-commercial organizations from police pressure because the principle remains the same. If a computer has a sticker on it to prove it is licensed, then everything is in order. If the sticker is taken away then there is proof of nothing. So the fact that they’re going to give out software for free doesn’t resolve the problem for non-commercial organizations,” said Igor Ogorodnikov, an activist at Baikal Environmental Wave. “Police officers can still come in, remove the stickers and say ‘look you don’t have them, we’re taking away all the computers.’ Simple as that.”
Meanwhile pressure on NGOs elsewhere continues. Various prominent groups, including Memorial, Transparency International’s Russia office, and the Moscow Helsinki Group were summoned out of the blue to produce detailed financial records at the General Prosecutor’s Office on September 14. “There was no indication that this was part of planned checks,” said Irina Sherbakova, an employee at the Memorial rights group. “We’ve submitted everything they asked for, but beyond that nothing has happened. They haven’t turned up since, thank goodness. Beyond that, we don’t know anything else. Of course, this check was a big surprise for us. We’d only just completed a really big check, which had been planned and comprises many hundreds of detailed documents.”
The source
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