Here's a nice little moral fable.
Lake Baikal is a wonder, the world's oldest and deepest lake, with many unique species. But Vladimir Putin doesn't care about such things: he's worried about unrest arising from unemployment in the area, and so authorised the re-opening of a paper mill, which had been pouring mercury, chlorine and heavy metals into this amazing ecosystem for years.
So far, so depressing.
But here the story takes an interesting turn:
It was late one afternoon in January when a squad of plainclothes police officers arrived at the headquarters of a prominent environmental group here. They brushed past the staff with barely a word and instead set upon the computers before carting them away. Taken were files that chronicled a generation’s worth of efforts to protect the Siberian wilderness.
The group, Baikal Environmental Wave, was organizing protests against Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to reopen a paper factory that had polluted nearby Lake Baikal, a natural wonder that by some estimates holds 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.
Instead, the group fell victim to one of the authorities’ newest tactics for quelling dissent: confiscating computers under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software.
Across Russia, the security services have carried out dozens of similar raids against outspoken advocacy groups or opposition newspapers in recent years. Security officials say the inquiries reflect their concern about software piracy, which is rampant in Russia. Yet they rarely if ever carry out raids against advocacy groups or news organizations that back the government.
As the ploy grows common, the authorities are receiving key assistance from an unexpected partner: Microsoft itself. In politically tinged inquiries across Russia, lawyers retained by Microsoft have staunchly backed the police.
Apparently Microsoft's willingness to help crush dissent isn't limited to this case:
Given the suspicions that these investigations are politically motivated, the police and prosecutors have turned to Microsoft to lend weight to their cases. In southwestern Russia, the Interior Ministry declared in an official document that its investigation of a human rights advocate for software piracy was begun “based on an application” from a lawyer for Microsoft.
In another city, Samara, the police seized computers from two opposition newspapers, with the support of a different Microsoft lawyer. “Without the participation of Microsoft, these criminal cases against human rights defenders and journalists would simply not be able to occur,” said the editor of the newspapers, Sergey Kurt-Adzhiyev.
What makes this development even worse, is that owning legitimate copies of Microsoft doesn't seem to help:
Baikal Wave’s leaders said they had known that the authorities used such raids to pressure advocacy groups, so they had made certain that all their software was legal.
But they quickly realized how difficult it would be to defend themselves.
They said they told the officers that they were mistaken, pulling out receipts and original Microsoft packaging to prove that the software was not pirated. The police did not appear to take that into consideration. A supervising officer issued a report on the spot saying that illegal software had been uncovered.
Before the raid, the environmentalists said their computers were affixed with Microsoft’s “Certificate of Authenticity” stickers that attested to the software’s legality. But as the computers were being hauled away, they noticed something odd: the stickers were gone.
Of course, there's a simple solution to all this: use free software. With that, no stickers are needed, and so there's no way the authorities can frame you for using it. Indeed, given free software's greater security, I can't really understand why human rights groups aren't routinely installing it anyway. Let's hope they learn from these awful experiences and switch soon - not least for Lake Baikal's sake.
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12 September 2010
Here's a nice little moral fable.