Human Rights First Praises New Microsoft Licensing Policy, Urges U.S. Government to Stand with Tech Companies Combating Abuses
Washington, DC – Late this afternoon, Microsoft announced a unilateral license for nongovernmental organizations and independent media designed to address concerns regarding the Russian government’s politically motivated enforcement of antipiracy laws against media and non-governmental organizations. Human Rights First dubbed the announcement welcome progress on a problem that has had serious repercussions for independent groups in Russia. “Today’s licensing announcement from Microsoft is a valuable step in the company’s ongoing efforts to oppose antipiracy prosecutions of activists and journalists. It is a clear and unambiguous message to Russian authorities that Microsoft will not participate in such activities, a response that charts the way forward for other companies facing similar challenges,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke. “We encourage the United States government to stand shoulder to shoulder with internet and communications technology companies as they navigate the challenging waters that surely lie ahead and seek solutions that protect the rights of individuals around the globe.” Human Rights First notes that, unfortunately, these cases are not limited to Russia, and Microsoft appropriately recognizes the wider problem and is making the unilateral license available in 12 countries. One lesson Microsoft has learned, which is relevant to companies like Adobe, Corel and others who have faced or likely will face this challenge, is that governments that seek to shut down peaceful dissent are creative and are likely to continue to seek ways to turn anti-piracy laws and enforcement efforts against independent groups. The organization said that today’s announcement acknowledges it will take more than a blanket software license to ensure that Microsoft is not again enmeshed in the Russian government’s campaign to intimidate its critics. Microsoft is making clear that the company will not participate in selective anti-piracy enforcement against nongovernmental organizations and small independent media. Microsoft is also committing to take additional, significant steps, including ongoing engagement with the groups and individuals targeted, to ensure its antipiracy objectives are pursued in ways that don’t enable Russian authorities to stifle freedom of expression. Over the past three years, Russian authorities at the federal, regional and local level have worked to stifle dissent through raids and prosecutions, justified on antipiracy grounds. As the New York Times has reported, Microsoft, through its local agents in Russia, lent support for, or acquiesced in selective enforcement actions. Human Rights First first became aware of this situation when a Russian human rights defender the group works with was targeted, and she reached out for help. Anastasia Denisova championed immigrant and minority rights as president of ETHnICS, a nongovernmental organization in southwest Russia. The authorities conducted office and home raids, and she was charged with piracy and faced criminal prosecution, fines and a jail sentence.. Microsoft’s local representative played an active role in the case. By the time the charges were dropped, seven months after the raid, for lack of evidence, Ms. Denisova’s organization was no longer functioning. Ms. Denisova said her experience wasn’t unusual, so we investigated further. Human Rights First documented a pattern of selective enforcement of anti-piracy laws by Russia over the past three years (see chart). These cases have had a serious impact on individuals and groups advancing democracy and accountability in Russia. As the attached chart shows, on the pretext of antipiracy enforcement, Russian authorities targeted four newspapers and a news organization. They also disrupted the work of an environmental group protesting a paper factory on Lake Baikal, a voter rights group on the eve of federal elections, two minority rights groups preparing to launch awareness campaigns, and a university’s publishing office. Human Rights First brought the issue to Microsoft’s attention and made a number of recommendations. The New York Times story prompted a public acknowledgement from Microsoft, whose General Counsel, Brad Smith, said that the company was focused on understanding its role in these cases and charting a new course forward. Human Rights First took this fresh opportunity to work closely with senior leadership on the proposed license and other steps. To help headquarters understand the situation in country, and the role of its local representatives – and implications for any proposed remedy – Human Rights First also convened a meeting with Russian civil society affected by selective anti-piracy enforcement. “We believe Microsoft is on the right path – today’s announcement includes several important commitments worth noting for their potential to raise the bar for corporate accountability,” Stahnke noted. First, Microsoft is backing up its license with the clear and unambiguous message to Russian authorities that it will not participate in anti-piracy cases against nongovernmental organizations or small independent media and will discourage any such actions. Second, Microsoft will continue to consult with Russian civil society. This will be an extremely valuable supplement to the announced policies. It will enable Microsoft to obtain advice on implementation of the new license, “early warning” of new cases, and suggestions on additional steps to preclude Microsoft involvement in such cases. In addition to these welcome steps, Human Rights First hopes that Microsoft’s ongoing investigation into selective enforcement will lead to personnel and policy changes to promote compliance and discourage complicity in selective enforcement, as well as tighter headquarters level oversight of the Russian anti-piracy team. It is important that Microsoft’s stand against selective enforcement be reinforced by complementary U.S. government actions and policies. The U.S. government should take the opportunity presented by Microsoft’s announcement of its unilateral license and additional policies to take several steps. First, it should communicate to Russian authorities the U.S. government’s expectations and priorities regarding intellectual property enforcement. U.S. officials should make clear that it does not support efforts that target nongovernmental organizations and independent media. It should also indicate its intention to speak out on behalf of targeted groups in the event future cases are brought, as it continues to condemn Russian government repression of civil society activists. Second, the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office should ensure that annual trade reports take note of politically motivated antipiracy enforcement and convey a consistent message with the State Department’s human rights country reports, highlighting concerns and outlining the U.S. policy and expectations. Third, the U.S. should encourage internet and communications technology companies to collaborate with nongovernmental organizations and the Global Network Initiative – a multistakeholder effort to help companies respond to government demands in ways that promote freedom of expression and privacy – to identify these issues early, and to work toward common solutions that respect and promote freedom of expression and privacy. “Every company is subject to the laws where it operates. But where, as in Russia, the laws are enforced in ways that abridge fundamental human rights, companies must have policies in place to identify and respond appropriately. With today’s announcement, Microsoft is helping to chart the way forward,” concluded Stahnke.