On September 11, The New York Times reported on the use of aggressive anti-piracy raids by Russian authorities to intimidate advocacy groups and independent media outlets. The article noted that these raids are usually prompted by false reports of pirated Microsoft software, sometimes from individuals claiming to represent Microsoft. This is a trend that CPJ has documented for some time. We’ve recorded incidents of independent outlets like Novaya Gazeta, Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye, Minuty Veka, and Kyrgyzstan’s STAN TV having offices shut down and computers seized on the orders of lawyers claiming to be acting for Microsoft, even when the companies’ software licenses are in order and shown to the investigators.
To its credit, Microsoft has acted to not only distance itself from these reports, but finally made concrete provisions that will let future targeted groups effectively defend themselves. On Monday, the company’s general counsel, Brad Smith, announced what he called a “unilateral software license” that will cover all software currently installed on nongovernmental organizations’ computers in Russia. Microsoft has advised us that it intends to widen this initiative to include independent media as well, and is working with groups in the region (including CPJ) to identify organizations that might need its protection in fighting off arbitrary anti-piracy raids. The company will also be publishing a public and strictly limited list of lawyers who are authorized to act for Microsoft in Russia. (Microsoft Russia has more details in Russian).
Hopefully, the simple fact that Microsoft has adopted such a strong position will dissuade politically motivated officials from using its name as a pretense for intimidation.
This solves an awkward and embarrassing problem for Microsoft, but it is unlikely to end the use of spurious police raids as tools of political pressure in Central Asia. Like selective tax raids before them, Microsoft anti-piracy actions are merely the latest paper-thin excuse for meddling in local reporting. What really needs to change in the region is a political culture of officials using their influence over local law-enforcement as way of settling grudges against the free press.