Microsoft's top lawyer said on Monday that the company is taking action in the wake of a report that its antipiracy efforts have been used by the Russian government as a means to monitor computers of dissident groups in that country.
In a blog post, general counsel Brad Smith said that the company is hiring an outside law firm to investigate a report in The New York Times that the Russian government has used Microsoft's antipiracy efforts as a pretext to search computers of potential dissidents and, separately, that some lawyers hired by Microsoft have worked with corrupt police to shake down businesses over the piracy issue.
The company also plans to take other steps, including a plan to make it easier for non-profit groups and newspapers in some countries to get access to free copies of its software in an effort to prevent such abuses.
"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," Smith said in a blog post."We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behavior."
Smith's comments follow a weekend report in The New York Times that the Russian government has been using the pretext of checking for counterfeit Microsoft software to search the computers of groups it wishes to monitor. The Times article suggests that lawyers hired by Microsoft have backed the tactic, while a second article said that that some of the private attorneys hired by Microsoft may have been part of a separate scheme collaborating with corrupt police to extort money from businesses over the piracy issue.
"As General Counsel for Microsoft, it was not the type of story that felt good to read," Smith said. "It described instances in which authorities had used piracy charges concerning Microsoft software to confiscate computers and harass non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others engaged in public advocacy. It suggested that there had been cases when our own counsel at law firms had failed to help clear things up and had made matters worse instead."
Smith said that the next step for the company is "clear cut."
"We must accept responsibility and assume accountability for our anti-piracy work, including the good and the bad," Smith wrote in the blog post. "At this point some of the specific facts are less clear than we would like. We will retain an international law firm that has not been involved in the anti-piracy work to conduct an independent investigation, report on its conclusions, and advise us of new measures we should take."
The lengthy blog post follows an earlier statement from Kevin Kutz, Microsoft's director of public affairs. Kutz said over the weekend that the company has been in discussions with various human rights groups regarding issues in Russia and has taken several new steps, including increasing monitoring and training of its outside lawyers and making available on its Russian Web site the names of those officials that are representing the company.
"We have to protect our products from piracy, but we also have a commitment to respect fundamental human rights," Kutz said. "Microsoft anti-piracy efforts are designed to honor both objectives, but we are open to feedback on what we can do to improve in that regard."
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