Microsoft is taking corrective measures after a New York Times article suggested that Russian authorities have used the company's antipiracy policy as a context for raids on advocacy groups.
Microsoft found itself a controversy magnet over the weekend, after The New York Times published a Sept. 11
about the Russian government's raiding of internal advocacy groups
"under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software."
Russian legal counsel retained by Microsoft to combat software piracy, the
article suggested, had supported Russian law enforcement in these
The article quotes complaints by advocacy groups that the
"antipiracy" raids were used to confiscate files and crush internal
dissent. Microsoft's supposed response to the groups' complaints was muted,
although the company is now reacting strongly to the Times'
"We take the concerns that have been raised very seriously," Kevin
Kutz, Microsoft's director of public affairs, wrote
in a statement to The New York Times
"When we grant powers-of-attorney to outside counsel to aid our antipiracy
efforts, we vet candidates very carefully. We bind them contractually to strict
standards and protocols, we train them and we monitor their activities."
Microsoft terminates contracts with candidates who violate those provisions,
Kutz added. "We have to protect our products from piracy, but we also have
a commitment to respect fundamental human rights."
Kutz claimed that, as a result of discussions with activist groups, Microsoft
would increase its monitoring and training of Russian counsel involved in its
antipiracy program, publish the names and certifications of authorized
Microsoft representatives in Russia,
and work to increase internal awareness of its Infodonor program, which offers
free Microsoft software to NGOs (non-governmental organizations).
On Sept. 13, Microsoft took additional steps to correct the issue.
"To prevent non-government organizations from falling victim to
nefarious actions taken in the guise of antipiracy enforcement," Brad
Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel, wrote
in a posting on The Official Microsoft Blog
, "Microsoft will create a
new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal
copies of our products." The program would last until 2012, with an
Furthermore, Smith added: "We're creating in Russia
a new NGO Legal Assistance Program focused specifically on helping NGOs
document to the authorities that this new software license proves they have
legal software." That will supposedly include details for those NGOs with
which to contact Microsoft in the event of questions from the authorities.
Smith also insisted that "we unequivocally abhor any attempt to
leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue
improper personal gain." Microsoft will apparently retain an
"international law firm" to independently investigate the problem.
The incident again illustrates the thorny issues involved in Microsoft's
dealings with nations that have less-than-stellar human-rights records. In such
cases, the company's desire to maintain solid business processes finds itself
influenced by the government's need to suppress dissent; those countries'
historic lack of transparency also hinders matters, preventing independent
groups from evaluating whether any corrective policies have, in fact, been
In late 2009, New York Times
columnist Nicholas Kristof accused Microsoft of "craven kowtowing" to
the Chinese government by offering "sanitized pro-Communist results"
in response to Bing searches in Simplified Chinese for terms such as "Tiananmen"
and "Dalai Lama." Microsoft
later claimed it fixed a "bug" supposedly responsible for Bing Image
Search delivering uniformly pro-Chinese-government results
In addition to dissident and advocacy-groups issues, Microsoft and other
tech companies have been forced to address the question of labor standards in
countries such as China,
where independent oversight is likewise difficult.
In August, Microsoft claimed it had investigated allegations of massive
labor violations at the KYE Systems factory in China's
response to an April report by the National Labor Committee detailing
"Immediately after the NLC report was issued," Kevin Kutz told eWEEK
in an Aug. 24 email, "we
dispatched a team of Microsoft and third-party auditors to the KYE facility to
conduct an investigative audit of the full scope of issues raised by the
report, and to assess other areas related to working conditions, including
labor, ethics, health, safety and environmental practices."
Those teams, Kutz added, found "some issues" that violated
Microsoft's Vendor Code of Conduct. "Working with KYE, we took corrective
measures," he said. "We continue to monitor working conditions there.
. .and will address any further issues if they emerge."
However, the National Labor Committee seemed to find that statement
"It's so vague that it's meaningless," Charles Kernaghan, the
organization's director, told eWEEK
in an Aug. 30 phone interview. "In China,
all you can possibly get is the dog-and-pony show. They know there's not going
to be any open discussion with the workers."