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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Microsoft gives blanket computer license to NGOs

Russia has confiscated non-governmental organizations’ (NGO)computers for three years until a recent story caught the eyes of The New York Times. Microsoft responded by giving a blanket license to NGOs all over the world.Imagine if every college student accused of illegally downloading music was forced to hand over their computers to the government. The country would collectively let loose a shrill whine until the authorities surrendered. In Russia, people really are having their computers and information taken, and no one has been listening until now.

Since 2007, security services in Russia have raided dozens of advocacy groups, media outlets and other NGOs, and confiscated their computers, according to the New York Times. These incidents tend to occur more frequently during periods leading up to elections or in times of political uproar.

Until 2010, most of the raids occurred outside of Siberia, in the western part of Russia. Cities, such as Samara and Volgograd in Russia’s industrial heartland, have seen the bulk of police confiscations. Two recent confrontations, however, have indicated that the arm of the federal government is beginning to reach into the eastern part of the country as well.

The confiscations gained international recognition when The New York Times published a story on an incident that occurred in Irkutsk, in which the police confiscated archives that chronicled “generations worth of efforts to protect the Siberian wilderness.”

The organization, Baikal Environmental Wave (BEW) was organizing protests against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s plan to reopen a paper mill that polluted Siberia’s Lake Baikal for many years. In January 2010, the group’s Irkutsk office was raided under the pretext of having pirated Microsoft software. According to BBC News, members of BEW believe the raid was linked to their effort to keep the mill closed.

The New York Times reported that the police ignored certificates of authenticity and receipts that were presented to them.
BEW members said there were also tiny certificates that verified the software’s authenticity stuck to each of the computers.

When the computers were being hauled away, they noticed that the stickers were gone. Members of the NGO said they “had known that the authorities used such raids to pressure advocacy groups” and that because of this, they made sure their software was legal.

“Russian political culture has always stuck to a strong central authority,” said Philip Slaby, assistant professor of history. “Their history is rife with stories of the federal government finding ways to control their people and suppress dissent – from now all the way back when the country was controlled by czars hundreds of years ago.”

Microsoft also ignored BEW’s pleas for justice. According to The New York Times, representatives in both Moscow and at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., asserted that they refrained from action only because they were required to do so by Russian law.

“If you look at Microsoft’s original press releases on the matter, they very much emphasize the need to respect the local authorities,” said Vance Ricks, associate professor of philosophy and computer ethics expert. “Microsoft didn’t want to stick their necks out if it meant losing business or making trouble for themselves.”

Microsoft responded to growing allegations of ignoring NGOs only after The New York Times presented its report to company officials, nine months after the Irkutsk incident. Jackie Lawrence, a public relations representative for Microsoft, referred The Guilfordian to Microsoft’s official blog.

“(Microsoft) abhors any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle advocacy or pursue improper, personal gain,” and “must accept responsibility and assume accountability for our anti-piracy work, including the good and the bad,” wrote Senior Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith on the blog.

The company will now give a free “blanket” software license to all qualifying NGOs and media outlets and make it easier for them to obtain the licenses.

The licensing plan will last until 2012 and applies to Russia and all other countries. It is intended to exonerate advocates currently being charged by Russian authorities and is aimed to prevent similar occurrences in Russia and around the world.

“(Microsoft’s) statement also promised an investigation of company’s lawyers to remind them that their role is not to be the second arm of the government,” said Ricks.

Although Microsoft reports that they are concerned about those journalists and advocates being affected by the confiscations, they also expressed their need to protect themselves and others against piracy.

“We aim to reduce the piracy and counterfeiting of software, and we aim to do this in a manner that respects fundamental human rights,” said Smith. “The reduction of software piracy has breathed new life into Russia’s own software industry and created new jobs in our industry.

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