Microsoft Changes Policy In Response To Russian Raids

Microsoft announced Monday new measures aimed at protecting non-governmental organizations from government harassment. In January, Russian police raided the offices of an environmental group, claiming it was using pirated Microsoft software. The group denies the charge. Clifford Levy, the Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times, talks with NPR's David Greene about his article on the raid, how this tactic is not new, and Microsoft's response.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

And I'm David Greene. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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GREENE: Today, Microsoft announced new measures aimed at protecting NGOs from government harassment. The move comes in response to a story in The New York Times over the weekend about an incident in Russia. Last January, police there raided the offices of an environmental group, claiming that it was using pirated Microsoft software. The group had denied the charge.

Clifford Levy wrote the story that led to all of this and The New York Times Moscow bureau chief joins us now from Russia's capital. Hi, Cliff.

CLIFFORD LEVY: Hi.

GREENE: The group that was raided is Baikal Environmental Wave and they were, as you reported, organizing protests over a polluting factory that Prime Minister Putin had ordered reopened. And you found in this case and in some other cases that lawyers retained by Microsoft were actually backing the Russian police.

LEVY: That's right. I mean, the authorities have increasingly used this tactic to exert pressure on advocacy groups and opposition newspapers in Russia. They essentially without warning, come in and will take the computers of these groups and say that they're investigating whether or not they have pirated software on the computers. The groups are all but paralyzed from these raids. Obviously, you can imagine if all of a sudden, all your computers were taken.

And essentially, it's what the authorities I think believe is a kind of a very clever way of squelching descent in Russia.

GREENE: So the police come and they take the computers saying that they think there's pirated software. Is there any evidence that maybe they were looking for something legitimate otherwise? I mean that, you know, pirated software?

LEVY: Pirated software is rampant in Russia. By some estimates, 60, 70, 80 percent of the computers have it. This is really an issue of selected prosecution. These raids are almost never carried out against groups or newspapers or media outlets that are friendly to the government. They're really almost only carried out against opponents of the government. These advocacy groups and these newspapers are essentially charging that lawyers retained by Microsoft in these cases are supporting the authorities.

They're essentially saying, yes, there was a loss to Microsoft here. They're signing statements saying Microsoft was a victim in these cases, and assisting the authorities in these inquiries.

GREENE: And this morning now we get some news from Microsoft. The general counselor offered I guess what's sort of a mea culpa. What exactly did he say on behalf of the company?

LEVY: So before the article came out I had talked to Microsoft in both Moscow and in Redmond, Washington, where their world headquarters is. And they obviously expressed concern about some of these allegations and said that, you know, they were gonna examine what was going on and tighten oversight of its lawyers in Russia.

And on Monday morning, the general counsel of Microsoft issued a 1,400-word statement in which he extensively apologized for the situation and said Microsoft would take a number of steps to remedy it. But what was interesting is that they announced that they would essentially grant a blanket software license to any non-profit group or opposition newspaper in Russia.

What that means is is that even if the group didn't ask for a license they would automatically consider to have it. And therefore, the government or the police or prosecutors would not be able to bring any sort of software piracy cases against those particular group because Microsoft would not in any way support the case.

GREENE: And, Cliff, I guess I want to ask in sort of the other direction. I mean, now that the company, Microsoft, has made sort of a blanket statement they're not going to get involved in cases like this, might that hurt them in the future if there is a legitimate argument to take computers away from some sort of group that might actually have pirated software.

LEVY: From Microsoft's point of view, they're not that interested in going after a tiny advocacy group. What they really want is the authorities in Russia and China and all these countries where software is rampant, they want the authorities to go after suppliers, distributors and manufacturers of pirated software.

What had been happening here is it seemed like they felt they were getting dragged into these small cases and I think they hadn't really focused on the ramifications of that.

GREENE: We've been speaking to Clifford Levy, the Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times. Thanks, Cliff.

LEVY: Thanks for having me.

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