Microsoft announced sweeping changes on Monday to its software policy in Russia, responding to criticism that it has been supporting a crackdown on dissent. The company essentially prohibited its Russian division from taking part in piracy cases against government opponents and declared that it would thwart any attempt by the authorities, in this country and elsewhere, to use such inquiries to exert political pressure.
The security services in recent years have seized computers from dozens of outspoken advocacy groups and opposition newspapers in raids that all but paralyzed their operations. Officials claim that they are merely investigating the piracy of Microsoft software, but the searches typically happen when these groups are seeking to draw attention to a cause or event.
The new Microsoft policy was announced by the company’s general counsel, Brad Smith, at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash. He said the company would thwart such piracy inquiries by offering advocacy groups and opposition newspapers a blanket software license that would automatically cover them, without having to apply for it.
In other words, Microsoft would formally declare that the programs on their computers were legal, making it all but impossible for the authorities to charge these groups with stealing Microsoft software.
(Microsoft is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
“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,” Mr. Smith said in a post on the company’s blog. “We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behavior.”
The policy is intended to last until 2012 but could be extended, he said. In the meantime, he said Microsoft would step up efforts to ensure that nonprofit groups have access to a program that provides free and low-cost Microsoft software.
The policy could have repercussions beyond Russia because the company indicated that it would apply to other countries as well, though it did not identify them.
Microsoft was reacting to an article in The New York Times on Sunday that detailed how lawyers retained by the company in Russia had strongly supported prosecutors and the police in piracy cases against advocacy groups and opposition newspapers.
The lawyers made formal declarations that the company was a victim and asserted that criminal charges should be pursued, according to interviews and a review of law enforcement documents.
The article described the case of a prominent environmental group in Siberia, Baikal Environmental Wave, which was raided by the police in January just as it was planning protests against a decision by Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin to reopen a paper factory that had long polluted Lake Baikal.
Plainclothes officers took 12 computers from Baikal Wave and immediately charged the group with piracy, even though its leaders said they had only licensed Microsoft software.
Leaders of Baikal Wave said they had been disappointed that Microsoft had rebuffed their pleas for help in defending themselves against the inquiry.
This article, "Microsoft Changes Policy Over Russian Crackdown," originally appeared in The New York Times.