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  • MSKGB? Microsoft and the Secret Police

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    Sunday's New York Times reports that the Microsoft Corporation is helping the Russian police go after computers that may contain pirated Microsoft software. Software piracy is rampant in Russia, but the computers that the police are targeting just happen to belong to groups protesting Russian government policies, or to newspapers critical of government actions. Groups supporting the government have been left alone, even if they have pirated copies of Word or Excel on their machines.

    In the most recent incident cited by the Times, Russian police seized computers at the offices of Baikal Environmental Wave, a group of activists in Irkutsk who have been protesting the government’s plans to reopen a paper factory whose past pollution of the lake resulted in fish kills and other serious damage.

    Russian police office taping a demonstration against the government's plan to reopen the Lake Baikal paper plant

    A Russian police officer tapes a Baikal Wave protest against the reopening of a polluting paper factory. The New York Times.

    The Times reports that Microsoft lawyers, often local Russian attorneys working for Microsoft, complain that their company is being victimized by groups using pirated software, and they routinely support the police raids and appear in court to encourage criminal prosecution of the accused. Microsoft insists that the company must comply with Russian law while at the same time “protect[ing] our products from piracy.” But Microsoft’s Director of Communications has added a hedge: “We also have a commitment to respect fundamental human rights.” This suggests that the company may be looking for a way to correct the impression that Microsoft supports the Russian efforts to silence government critics.

    American corporations doing business abroad must abide by local laws, but when these laws abridge human rights, suppress criticism of the government, or limit access to information, compliance abroad makes for bad publicity back home. When Google opened a China-based web browser, it agreed to block access to certain websites, including those devoted to the Falun Gong, Taiwan, Tibet, and the Tiananmen Square protests. Critics promptly charged Google with aiding China’s repression of dissidents.

    At first Google tried taking the ethical high road, insisting that China’s censorship wasn’t so bad because providing some information to the nation’s growing market of computer users was better than providing none at all. But that brought further complaints that the sixth of Google’s Ten Things We Know to be True, “You can make money without doing evil,” had been revised to read, “You can make money without doing evil, except in China.”

    Google’s decision to censor google.cn also appeared to violate the company’s eighth principle of ethical internet practice, “The need for information crosses all borders.” The Great Firewall of China underscores the Chinese government's insistence that borders exist to keep out information, as if information were just one more form of contraband.

    screenshot of the Google.cn website, in Chinese

    Google in China

    After several years of bad press and Congressional rumblings, Google finally stopped censoring its Chinese search engine and moved its China servers offshore. Now it's Microsoft's turn to separate business practice from government repression. Microsoft’s Chinese search engine, not as well-publicized as Google’s, continues to comply with China's internet restrictions. And Microsoft’s involvement in Russia’s heavy-handed attempts to stifle dissent is bringing the company the kind of bad publicity it might prefer to avoid.

    Microsoft finds itself vigorously protecting its intellectual property from piracy and copyright violation at the cost of aligning the company with Russian autocrats and thugs fighting the country's independent journalists and environmentalists. Some of these alleged activist nogoodniks actually showed the police receipts and original packaging to prove they bought their Microsoft products legitimately, but their computers were seized anyway, effectively shutting down their operations and sending the chilling message that while opposing the government can be hazardous to your health, opposing the government and Microsoft is bad both for your health and for your business.

    Microsoft already has a virtual monopoly on our writing technology and its operating systems control most of the world's computers. Does it really need to become our political as well as our technological Big Brother? Before clicking "agree" on that end-user agreement with the KGB, Microsoft needs to make sure that the fine print no one ever reads actually allows information to cross all borders and permits the company to do business -- in Russia -- without doing evil.

    From Russia with Love

    From Russia with love? An undercover agent of MSKGB reprises an old Microsoft slogan when she asks, “Where do you think you’re going today?”

    UPDATE: One day after the New York Times article appeared, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith announced that the company would no longer support Russia's attempt to stifle dissent by pursuing software piracy charges: "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." The policy, which will be in place until 2012, will apply not just to Russia, but to other, unnamed countries as well. Perhaps dissent in Russia will become less of an issue after 2012. The Times also noted that Baikal Wave activists complained that Microsoft refused to help them prove to Russian authorities that their seized computers had only legally-acquired software.

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