10/20/2010 04:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Microsoft's Public Relations Nightmare

Does Microsoft care more about international software piracy and sales than it does about the persecution of dissident groups in Russia and China?

Thankfully, the answer to this question may be no (or at least not when an international spot light is placed squarely on the issue). As some may have read, on September 11, 2010, the New York Times reported that Microsoft was actively participating with the Russian government in quelling dissent organizations. As unlikely as that may seem, the article explained that security services throughout Russia had engaged in dozens of so-called computer raids on various advocacy groups or opposition newspapers. Unfortunately, for the software giant, the pretext for these numerous raids was searching for pirated Microsoft software.

However, the accusations didn't stop there. According to the Times, Microsoft lawyers in Russia also participated in the prosecution of numerous accused journalists and advocacy groups. The article even claimed that Microsoft refused to authenticate documents that would have established the innocence of at least one accused environmental group, i.e., that could have proved the group had validly purchased the Microsoft software at issue. Notably, the article also revealed that "for months" human rights organizations had been pressing Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington to tighten oversight of its legal affairs in Russia.

Why would Microsoft aid the Russian government in attempts to suppress dissent activity? According to the dissenters, Microsoft fears jeopardizing its relationship with the Russian government and ultimately losing sales in Russia. While this may be true, Microsoft certainly has legitimate concerns regarding overseas piracy, which runs rampant in countries like Russian and China. The Times article also intimated that Microsoft might have been unwittingly used by the Russian government. In fact, quotes from Microsoft US officials regarding procedures for vetting outside, overseas counsel suggested as much without outright confirming the company was duped.

In any event, regardless of Microsoft's ultimate motives or knowledge, the issue has proved to be a public relations nightmare for the tech giant. Just recently, however, Microsoft has gone beyond apologies and made it clear that it is not in the business of supporting state sponsored suppression of opposition groups. On October 16, 2010, it was reported that Microsoft is vastly expanding its efforts to prohibit governments from using software piracy investigations as a pretext to suppress dissent. The company has announced plans to provide free software licenses to more than 500,000 advocacy groups, independent media outlets and other non-profit organizations in at least 12 countries, including Russia and China. These countries are among the nations where Microsoft's software is the most pirated.

Although Microsoft may have needed encouragement from the public embarrassment that followed the New York Times article, the company should receive at least some credit for stepping up and finally addressing the issue. Let's hope that Microsoft's newly announced program ends its involvement in state-sponsored suppression of opposition groups abroad.