Are Microsoft lawyers partying with Putin to harass Russian rebels?

What should Microsoft do to make this right?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Sometimes I think that as bad as the whole Christian/Muslim divide has been over the centuries, it doesn't hold a candle to the divide between those who favor Microsoft and those who favor Linux.

Personally, I've never really taken sides. I've always generally found Microsoft software to do its job. It's often just a little annoying, but generally functional. More important, I've -- with absolutely no exceptions -- found the people I've met at Microsoft to be extremely pleasant and cooperative.

Linux, too, works quite well. The Linux loonies, well ... they're another story. As unfailingly polite as Microsofties have been, that's about how impolite I've seen the Linux lads to be over the years.

But, you know, that's the difference between working for a large corporation (and wanting to keep your job) and placing your entire quest for life's meaning in the arms of a rogue operating system while waiting too long between taking your meds (or talking to girls).

Unfortunately, if an article just published in The New York Times is to be believed (and, sadly, I do believe it), apparently the penchant for Microsoft people to be pleasant and cooperative has gone a little too far.

According to the Times, Microsoft's lawyers in Russia have been going out of their way to help Russian authorities crack down on protesters.

If you were to draw a number line and put "warm and fuzzy" on one end, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin would be as far as it's possible to go on the other end.

Vlad-Vlad is not exactly a cuddly Russian bear.

All indications are that Putin does not like his citizens to disagree with him. Harkening back to those heady, happy, halcyon days of his KGB career, Putin has been reported to use relatively heavy strong-arm tactics to silence anyone who disagrees with him.

Russia, like any other country, has its share of internal critics, ranging from political advocates to environmentalists, to the one guy in Cheremkhovo who wants to change the name of the country to Thousand Island (OK, I made that part up).

Although it may not seem so to outsiders (especially those steeped in spy novels), Russia is also a country with laws, and those laws protect protesters as much as they protect well-behaved citizens.

In a move so KGB-like and full of misdirection as to make Harry Houdini proud, The New York Times is claiming that the Russkies are cracking down on dissidents by "investigating" claims of software piracy.

This is where the boys from Redmond (Red, get it, heh, Glenn Beck would be so proud!) apparently get involved. The Times claims that Microsoft lawyers are supporting (and possibly inciting) raids on the offices of protesters, all in the guise of protecting the company's software licenses.

Where it gets quite dicey is in the claim that some of the protesters whose computers were seized were actually legal licensees of Microsoft software. These protesters claim that they specifically made sure to buy all their licenses so there would be no justification to investigate them based on their proper use of software.

Aside: what has this world come to when authoritarian regimes have to rely on software licenses to be jack-booted government thugs?

Anyway, as the story goes, those protesters whose gear was seized contacted Microsoft's lawyers in Russia, provided them with proof of ownership of the necessary licenses, and got a response surprisingly similar to Sergeant Schultz' timeless utterings of "I know nothing".

If all of this is true, what are we to think?

Is Microsoft complicit in Russia's human rights violations? If so, should we hold them to a higher ethical standard? How can we reconcile Bill Gates' astonishing level of philanthropy with dissident suppression in Russia?

What should Microsoft do to make this right?

Personally, I think the lesson here is that if you're in Russia and if you're protesting against the government, you should be using Linux. It'll protect you from the authorities -- and the Blue Screen of Death.

Just don't hang out with too many Linux fans. Those cats are craaaaaazy.

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