Russia Silencing Dissent With Microsoft's CooperationS

The New York Times has an interesting report on Russian authorities' newest tactic for silencing dissenting groups: claiming that they're using pirated Microsoft software and confiscating all their computers. What's worse is that Microsoft hasn't stopped them from doing it.

The Baikal Environmental Wave, a prominent environmental group, was planning to protest the reopening of a factory that had polluted nearby Lake Baikal when plainclothes officers seized their computers, claiming that they were under suspicion of using pirated Microsoft software. In fact, the group had purchased their licenses legally to avoid such harassment, but Russian authorities didn't care, and surprisingly, neither did Microsoft itself:

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.

Interviews and a review of law enforcement documents show that in recent cases, Microsoft lawyers made statements describing the company as a victim and arguing that criminal charges should be pursued.

...In Russia, leaders of advocacy groups and newspapers subjected to antipiracy raids said Microsoft was cooperating with the authorities because the company feared jeopardizing its business in the country. They said Microsoft needed to issue a categorical public statement disavowing these tactics and pledging to never cooperate in such cases.

Microsoft has not done that, but has promised to review its policies in Russia.

Microsoft's director of public affairs, Kevin Kutz, says that the company is "open to feedback" on how they should handle such instances, but for many dissenting groups and newspapers the damage has already been done. For Baikal Environmental Wave, the NYT explains, the raid was devastating: "the group's Web site was disabled, its finances left in disarray, its plans disclosed to the authorities." Check out the full article for more about how using Windows, even if purchased legally, can be a liability for the groups who are speaking up in Russia. [NYT via BoingBoing]

Update: CNET reports that Microsoft is hiring an outside law firm to investigate the Times report, and a post on the official Microsoft blog says that the company is working to keep this type of thing from happening in the future:

Whatever the circumstances of the particular cases the New York Times described, we want to be clear that we unequivocally abhor any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain. We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behavior.