Microsoft "complicit" in Russian dissident crackdown

The New York Times' Clifford J. Levy published some worrying allegations about Microsoft yesterday. Let's take a look, in The Long View.

The Russian Connection

Preston Gralla: Is Microsoft helping Russia crack down on dissidents?

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Microsoft's newest partner: Russia's Vladimir Putin

If I'm reading between his lines correctly, Levy is all-but blaming Microsoft of helping the Russian government shut down political dissidents. The article alleges that the Russian government has found a quasi-legal way of disrupting opposition groups, by way of bogus software piracy investigations -- and that Microsoft aids and abets this chilling of free speech.

The smell of it is that Microsoft is more than just an innocent third party, but that it's in cahoots with the government. Here's how Levy sets the scene:

One of the authorities’ newest tactics for quelling dissent [is] confiscating computers under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software.
...
The security services have carried out dozens of similar raids against outspoken advocacy groups or opposition newspapers.
...
They rarely if ever carry out raids against ... organizations that back the government.

OK, but how is this Microsoft's fault, exactly? Levy strings together a careful choice of words (aided by his editors, no doubt):

The authorities are receiving key assistance from ... Microsoft.
...
Lawyers retained by Microsoft have staunchly backed the police ... making statements describing the company as a victim and arguing that criminal charges should be pursued.

There's two ways of reading this. One is that Levy wants to accuse Microsoft of complicity, but can't find sufficient facts to support it.

The other reading is basically, "When did you stop beating your wife?"

But now that Microsoft's aware of the allegation, is anything going to change?

Microsoft executives ... asserted that they did not initiate the inquiries and that they took part in them only because they were required to do so under Russian law.
...
The company responded that it planned to tighten its oversight of its legal affairs in Russia.

Hmmm, no more vacuous and content-free than one might expect for a legal PR statement.

Looks like we have another situation like the one in China, where American businesses have to justify their collusion with unappetizing regimes. And just as they did in China, Microsoft is playing the we-have-no-choice-it's-the-law card.

Sadly though, it seems as though this isn't the first time that Microsoft's been told about the problem:

Human rights organizations in Russia have been pressing Microsoft to do so for months.

Oops.

I always love digging throught the reader comments on articles such as this. Hidden amongst the inevitable calls for opposition groups to use Linux and other free/open-source software, are a couple of absolute gems.

Nancy J, from Microsoft's home state proves Godwin's Law:

IBM and the Hollerith machines they sold the Third Reich gave Hitler the tool he needed to fully implement his Jewish genocide. 60 years later, here we are. Same song, thousandth verse.

Whereas Kevin in Chicago prefers a Biblical hand-washing reference:

Microsoft ... [is] playing Pontius Pilate while Russia uses software piracy as a bogus cover for human rights violations.


Anyway, I hope you're having a good weekend and aren't feeling too oppressed by your own authoritarian regime -- be it governmental, spousal, or otherwise.

What's your take on this story? Leave a comment below...

Richi Jennings, blogger at large
 

Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, or just use good old email: TLV@richij.com.

You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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