Piracy is a big problem for large software vendors licensors like Microsoft. As such, the Redmond giant is undertaking several anti-piracy efforts all over the world, and, of course, it attempts to make its software harder to crack through activation and validation. As The New York Times has discovered, however, the prevalence of pirated Microsoft software in Russia is giving the Russian authorities a pretence to raid the offices of outspoken advocacy groups or opposition media - supported by Microsoft lawyers.
The New York Times tells the story of the Baikal Environmental Wave, an environmental group in Irkutsk, which is currently trying to protest against prime-minister Vladimir Putin's attempts to re-open a paper factory that has already caused environmental damage to Lake Baikal, a natural wonder - it's the oldest and deepest lake in the world.
The group, however, fell victim to the latest trick in the book of Russian authorities when dealing with dissident groups: using the search for pirated software as an excuse to raid the offices of these dissident groups, confiscating computers in the process. Lawyers hired by Microsoft back the police in these political raids.
Baikal Wave had explicitly bought legal Microsoft software to shield themselves from these new types of raids, but that didn't work, apparently. They also asked Microsoft for help in fending off the authorities, but Microsoft didn't want to help. "Microsoft did not want to help us, which would have been the right thing to do," Marina Rikhvanova, a Baikal Environmental Wave co-chairwoman, told The New York Times, "They said these issues had to be handled by the security services."
The New York Times asked Microsoft for an official statement, and they got one. While the company does not publicly condemn the raids, they did say that they "[encourage] law enforcement agencies worldwide to investigate producers and suppliers of illegal software rather than consumers".
"We take the concerns that have been raised very seriously," said Kevin Kutz, director of public affairs at Microsoft, "When we grant powers-of-attorney to outside counsel to aid our antipiracy efforts, we vet candidates carefully, we bind them contractually to strict standards and protocols, we train them and we monitor their activities. They are accountable to us, and if their actions do not comport with professional ethics, anticorruption laws, or Microsoft policies, we terminate our relationship with them. Moreover, as we did with Baikal Environmental Wave, we will act to ensure due process is followed in antipiracy cases that involve Microsoft products."
Kutz further added that based on feedback from advocacy groups, the company will make a number of changes in its anti-piracy efforts; they will more actively train their local anti-piracy lawyers, while also publishing the names of authorised representatives to prevent people from fraudulently claiming to represent the company. It will also promote the Infodonor program in Russia, which gives free Microsoft software to NGOs.
Still, The New York Times found several cases in which the police based its actions on claims from Microsoft's lawyers. "Without the participation of Microsoft, these criminal cases against human rights defenders and journalists would simply not be able to occur," said Sergey Kurt-Adzhiyev, editor of an opposition newspaper. Computers are marked as containing pirated software even before they have been examined. Worse yet, authenticity stickers from Microsoft were being removed from machines as they were being hauled away.
All in all, the findings from The New York Times seem to indicate that the Russian authorities are using the possibility of pirated software as an excuse to raid the offices of dissidents, with the support of Microsoft's lawyers.
The story in The New York Times is well-worth the four-page read, and while some may consider it something that will only happen in countries like Russia and China, the reality of it is that our very own governments have the same kinds of power, or are at least trying to get it through nastiness like ACTA.