Is Microsoft helping Russia crack down on dissidents?

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Microsoft is helping the Russian government crack down against dissidents under the guise of anti-piracy efforts, according to the New York Times. The wide-ranging attacks target advocacy groups and opposition newspapers, with Microsoft lawyers providing cover for the Russian authorities, the newspaper charges.

The article says that Russian police have raided dozens of advocacy groups and opposition newspapers, claiming that they are looking for pirated Microsoft software, under false pretenses. The police take away computers, whether or not software has been pirated, and have even torn stickers off computers showing that Microsoft software has been legitimately purchased. The groups are then left without the use of computers, and prosecuted. The Times notes:

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.

The Times says the police have conducted dozens of raids, against environmental groups, election-watchers, newspapers, and others. The story portrays Microsoft as being more than just complicit in the raids, and actually helping the police before and during the raids, and afterwards in the prosecutions.

Here are just two examples, according to the newspaper:

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.

Later on, in the article, Kurt-Adzhiyev is quoted as saying about several of the raids:

"Microsoft says publicly that they have no claims in these cases, but then their lawyers come into the court and say whatever the police want them to say."

Microsoft denies the charges, but the evidence gathered by the Times is pretty substantial.

Microsoft should immediately take action to stop its cooperation with the Russian authorities, and while it's at it, should also stop censoring Bing search results at the behest of the Chinese government. There are plenty of ways for the company to make money around the world --- helping authoritarian regimes crack down on dissidents shouldn't be one of them.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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