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Microsoft to probe charges of antipiracy abuses

In a blog post, general counsel Brad Smith says that Microsoft wants to make sure the company's antipiracy efforts are not used by governments as a means for monitoring citizens or as an extortion tool.

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 nonprofit 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."

Brad Smith Microsoft

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."

In addition, Smith said that Microsoft is changing the way it licenses software to nongovernmental organizations in Russia and helping the groups document to authorities that they have legal software. The company will also work over the next month to strengthen efforts to prevent those working for Microsoft or claiming to do so from extorting money over the piracy issue.

"Our team in Russia had already started work to address this by creating a list on the web of our authorized counsel, so that anyone can review this and readily check someone's claim that they represent Microsoft," Smith said. "This is a good step, but we can and should do more."

At the same time, reducing piracy is a huge issue for Microsoft, particularly in emerging markets such as Russia.

"It costs jobs and business growth and can cheat consumers who think they're paying for genuine products," Smith said. "We know for a fact that the reduction of software piracy has breathed new life into Russia's own software industry and has created new jobs in our industry, both at Russian software companies and for U.S. software exporters. But none of this should create a pretext for the inappropriate pursuit of NGOs, newspapers, or other participants in civil society. And we certainly don't want to contribute to any such effort, even inadvertently."

Smith said the new steps should help avoid that, but pledged the company would take further action, if necessary.

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 who 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."

Updated at 10 a.m. PDT with additional details and more comments from Smith.