Microsoft Assists Russian Repression

This article was originally published on Salon on September 12, 2010.

Despots use the law to repress their citizens. The laws can be evil as written, or they can be so widely flouted that selective enforcement punishes the “right” people.

The Russian government has deployed the latter tactic, the New York Times reports today, by using a law against copyright infringement to go after dissidents. That’s bad enough. What should sicken Americans is that Microsoft is complicit in this campaign, according to the newspaper:

Across Russia, the security services have carried out dozens of similar raids against outspoken advocacy groups or opposition newspapers in recent years. Security officials say the inquiries reflect their concern about software piracy, which is rampant in Russia. Yet they rarely if ever carry out raids against advocacy groups or news organizations that back the government.

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. The lawyers rebuffed pleas by accused journalists and advocacy groups, including Baikal Wave, to refrain from working with the authorities. Baikal Wave, in fact, said it had purchased and installed legal Microsoft software specifically to deny the authorities an excuse to raid them. The group later asked Microsoft for help in fending off the police. “Microsoft did not want to help us, which would have been the right thing to do,” said Marina Rikhvanova, a Baikal Environmental Wave co-chairwoman and one of Russia’s best-known environmentalists. “They said these issues had to be handled by the security services.”

The company put out a statement saying it would be looking into the situation and, if the company is to be trusted, to rein in its Russian legal team, among other actions. Believe this when you see it.

Microsoft isn’t alone in going beyond the standard tech-industry assistance for foreign repression. Typically this takes the form of obeying legal but odious orders from local authorties, as Yahoo did in China’s jailing of a dissident, an act for which it belatedly (and somewhat unconvincingly) apologized. Two years ago, Business Week published along and dreary list of U.S. companies that believe authoritarian rule makes for good markets.

What Microsoft seems to have done in Russia is disturbing in new ways, an overt and unusually slimy collaboration with tactics plainly aimed at stamping out dissent. Could the company be sending a more troubling message about its ethics and corporate culture? It’s hard to imagine a more ugly one.

I find myself hoping that top Microsoft executives such as Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie had no idea what was being done with their company’s help. The public statement is weasly and insufficient.

I hope these men will look in the mirror tomorrow morning, after the justified PR firestorm heading their way in the wake of the Times story, and realize how bad this is. And when they get to the office, I hope they’ll announce something better: their intention to crack down on the people who made this happen, at least the ones under their own control.