12 September 2010

Microsoft, Enemy of Human Rights in Russia?

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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


FleaStiff said...

I would expect that any software violations are purely excuses for the police seizures and that any "prior application of a Microsoft lawyer" is pure fiction or some document filled in by the police under a signed-in-blank Microsoft letter.

Big deal. It has nothing to do with Microsoft. It has nothing to do with software piracy.

It is the price of getting any action on legitimate piracy claims.

Jean Hominal said...

You seem to miss the most important factor there: Russia's state police was out to get that NGO, and they were not afraid to falsify the truth to do it - they have enough power to get away with ignoring inconvenient facts and spouting blatant lies.

Had these computers been loaded with free software, they would still have been hauled off for "investigation" - any tampering done by the police with these computers would be passed by the police off as "investigation".
Even if the NGO wins a following trial about software piracy (highly improbable), they will still have lost all of their confiscated data and a lot of time and money.

As for Microsoft's implication, I suspect that they are misled, manipulated, used, rather than a driving force in these events. (Never assume evilness when stupidity is enough to explain it.)

Glyn Moody said...

@FleaStiff: of course, you're right, this was purely an excuse. But the story explicitly says that the groups in question said "Microsoft needed to issue a categorical public statement disavowing these tactics and pledging to never cooperate in such cases."

In other words, Microsoft is still complicit in this, even if it is only a bystander.

Glyn Moody said...

@jhominal: see comment above regarding Microsoft's complicity in this.

Well, what could the authorities have done had the groups used free software? Nothing in terms of licensing. So, yes, they would have moved on to something else without doubt - but the point is, using Microsoft makes it easy to pull them up for alleged piracy. If they had used free software, at least they would have made it harder.

In these cases, you can't win, but you don't have to simply throw in the towel...

Valdis said...

Russian state institutions will find way to intervene even if free software is used. Look at http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=ru&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fhabrahabr.ru%2Fblogs%2Fsam%2F97421%2F

Glyn Moody said...

@valdis: yes, interesting stuff.

It seems to me that the solution is actually quite simple. Since the issue is how much Ubuntu, say, is "worth", and the measure is Vista, all you need to do is to make the investigators *use* Vista so that they realise that is worthless, and hence the value of Ubuntu is 0, and hence no taxes need be paid...