Fast Company

How Microsoft Can Make Sure It's Not Russia's Tool

Russian protest

This weekend the New York Times published an expose showing one method used by the Russian government to crush opposition from activist groups. And one of our Most Innovative Companies, Microsoft, is tangled up in the story.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government, along with the Russian office of Microsoft's formidable legal team, has been raiding groups that oppose its policies. During those raids, computers, servers, and other electronic equipment are seized, with data often copied and/or erased before being returned, if the equipment actually is returned (which it often isn't). It's an effective way to stop an activist group in its tracks.

The reason for these raids? The groups are usually accused of using pirated Microsoft software. But the security forces never actually check before confiscating computers to see if there is pirated software on them. The complaints that trigger the raids are often made by shifty third parties who have sometimes never even seen the equipment.

The most recent raid targeted a group called Baikal Environmental Wave. The group is protesting the re-opening of a paper plant on Lake Baikal in Siberia, the largest lake in the world (it has about the same amount of water as all five North American Great Lakes combined). The paper plant was shut down in 2008 in part due to massive worldwide protests--the plant was a notorious polluter, leaching obscene amounts of toxic chemicals into the otherwise pristine lake. But in January, Putin decreed that the plant is safe and should be reopened.

Baikal Environmental Wave disagrees, and has suffered for their protests.

Microsoft is a key player in these raids. At least one investigation was kicked off by a Microsoft prosecutor. Microsoft lawyers invariably side with the police and vigorously prosecute whoever the police wants, and the company refuses to authenticate software purchases by these groups (such authentication would nullify the entire investigation). Said an editor of opposition newspapers: "Without the participation of Microsoft, these criminal cases against human rights defenders and journalists would simply not be able to occur."

Microsoft has issued a couple of official responses to the article. The first is a brief and tremendously unsatisfying pledge to "increase monitoring and awareness," a meaningless statement that doesn't require any actual action. A second, more personal statement from Brad Smith, Microsoft's General Counsel, has the right attitude--concerned, proactive, apologetic, and with a proposal for a way to fix the mess--but the problem is, the proposal won't solve the problem at its base.

Smith proposes an essentially two-pronged approach. First, Microsoft will "create a new unilateral software license for NGOs," which extends Microsoft's NGO program to more organizations through 2012. (The precise nature of the application process is a bit vague--I was told that groups with "under 50 computers" that follow "generally accepted guidelines for NGOs" will qualify.) That will be accompanied by documentation that states specifically that each NGO has full license to use these products and that no software piracy is involved. Microsoft also plans to fly its Russian counsel out to Russian authorities to "personally" explain this new NGO documentation--basically, to tell any Russian police force to quit raiding any group that can present the documentation.

Second, Microsoft is pledging to "undertake new steps" to ensure third parties no longer pretend to represent Microsoft for nefarious purposes. Microsoft doesn't really have a plan for that yet, but has set a team on it and plans to put something into effect by next month.

The first part of the plan is sound, if the Russian authorities play by the rules. But, obviously, they don't. Does anyone actually think fancy new documentation will deter these authorities, considering they've already been seizing equipment based on flimsy and false charges filed by people who have never even seen the equipment that is to be investigated?

In fact, Baikal Environmental Wave had specifically kept all of the documentation and even packaging of their legally purchased Microsoft software, and presented it to the Russian police, to no effect. One more sheet of paper is hardly likely to deter these governmental authorities from attempting to destroy dissenting groups.

Microsoft is clearly concerned with maintaining its anti-piracy stance while making sure the company is not involved in any way with anti-dissident action. Microsoft's new policies appear to be designed not to stop the cycle of anti-dissident action, but to make sure the company is not enabling or participating in it.

One of the biggest complaints of the Russian activist groups is that Microsoft offers little or no help to fraudulently accused NGOs, and Microsoft's counsel has written that this will change. The raids may not stop, but Microsoft wants to make sure its hands are clean. It's not exactly fair to expect a multinational corporation to be an activist group as well, but Microsoft is definitely taking a more hands-off stance than, say, Google in China.

This part of the proposal is all about hindsight. After a raid has occurred, Microsoft will make itself available for assistance, providing legal documentation and personnel. But that won't stop the raids--it could stop activist groups from being successfully prosecuted, but they'll still have lost their equipment and data, which is really what the raids are intended to do in the first place.

The second part of the pledge is a little more questionable. In a sense, Russian authorities are using Microsoft's as a tool. But the exact nature of the relationship is complex. Microsoft is hiring an international law firm to look into this.

In another New York Times piece Transparency International, an anticorruption group, says some lawyers involved in the raids have extorted money from NGOs for supposedly piracy-related reasons. Sorting out the good lawyers from the bad and the legitimate employees from the frauds is a hefty process.

Given the diversity and quantity of these claims, from multiple NGOs, activist groups, Russian media, and international anticorruption groups, it seems likely that Microsoft will have to fire and possibly prosecute some lawyers. At least, Microsoft plans on publishing a list of all the lawyers it really does employ, so NGOs won't be tricked by frauds. But that assumes that this fraud really is the majority of the problem, which it might not be. For all Microsoft knows, prior to the investigatory report, it's their own lawyers who are acting as the Russian government's muscle--in which case the published list won't help.

This second part of the proposal is an attempt at foresight, at taking away the muscle of the Russian authorities. It's harder, involving a ton of bureaucracy and internal investigation, and will certainly take longer to set up.

This is a major scandal for Microsoft. Though major American companies often have to undertake otherwise unsavory projects in countries with authoritarian governments just to stay in business, that doesn't make it acceptable. Google recently departed from China over a philosophically similar controversy. Microsoft is going to stay in Russia, of course, and isn't able or willing to dial back piracy investigations.

Microsoft can't really fix this problem. It remains to be seen if the company will adequately publicize and live up to the promise of its new NGO assistance program, and if it will have any effect on these sorts of raids. The Russian government will almost certainly continue to try to block dissident groups. Microsoft just wants to stay out of it. They can, too, if they stick to these promises once the story has died down.

[Image credit: New York Times]

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in Brooklyn (no link for that one--you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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1 Comments

  • John Herald

    Outstanding synopsis and analysis. The best I've seen among 50+ sites, second only to the original New York Times investigative piece and without peer among followups. Your Pulitzer is in the mail.