Microsoft found itself a controversy magnet over the weekend, after The New York Times published a Sept. 11 story 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 endeavors.
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' report.
"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 extension possible.
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 enacted.
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 to politically sensitive queries.
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 Dongguan City, in response to an April report by the National Labor Committee detailing conditions there.
"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 unconvincing.
"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."