By Elisa Massimino, President of Human Rights First
Crossposted at Huffington Post
This weekend’s New York Times article was a wake up call to Microsoft and the entire information and communications technology industry about the dangers of complying with government actions aimed at limiting freedom of expression and stifling dissent.
To date, the most publicized repression has been censoring web content or surveillance of Internet users. The Russians took a different tack, using anti piracy laws to crack down on independent non-governmental organizations and non-violent government critics. Microsoft has a vested interest in anti piracy enforcement — piracy is rampant in Russia. But targeting human rights activists and news organizations for enforcement is clearly aimed not at protecting Microsoft’s intellectual property, but at crippling political opponents and curbing basic freedoms. And Microsoft’s representatives in Russia cooperated in those proceedings, providing the legal pretext and evidentiary basis for raids, criminal and civil charges and penalties that effectively closed down the targeted organizations.
One of our human rights colleagues in Russia was a victim of this practice, and we reached out to Microsoft to try to find a solution, both to this specific case and to the wider pattern of abusive enforcement over the past several years. Microsoft’s recently announced policies to address several of these concerns.
Importantly, Microsoft will undertake an independent investigation of its Russian anti piracy team and its role in collaborating with Russian authorities. We encourage Microsoft to ensure that the individuals and civil society groups targeted for selective enforcement are interviewed as part of this review. We have also recommended that Microsoft maintain headquarters level oversight of its Russian anti piracy efforts to ensure that its responses to future Russian anti piracy investigations do not facilitate repression. As our letter to Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer points out, and as our Russian colleagues have cautioned, local representatives will likely remain vulnerable to pressure from Russian authorities to collaborate in politically motivated proceedings.
Our Russian human rights colleagues would welcome a working relationship with Microsoft. As defendants in these cases, and targets of potential abuse, they are well positioned to advise on risks and development of new policies. Microsoft should make every effort to consult with them as it develops new practices and procedures to respond to the concerns. The Global Network Initiative can also play an important role in helping Microsoft and other companies at risk to develop strategies to address government abuse of intellectual property laws to curb dissent, and to respond to such demands appropriately.
We welcome Microsoft’s commitment to extend access to its free software problem. But as the New York Times story makes clear, without Microsoft’s continuing leadership and engagement, civil society will remain at risk of selective prosecution. We have recommended that Microsoft join with Human Rights First to host consultations with Russian civil society for the purpose of obtaining their insights on the best way forward.
Two years ago, Human Rights First joined with Microsoft and other stakeholders to launch the Global Network Initiative. We believed that companies could not “go it alone” in confronting government demands to curb online speech. Russia is not alone in using technology and selective prosecutions to crack down on civil society. We now know that these threats can come from many places, and that companies need to work in partnership with civil society to address them.
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