The NY Times ran a bombshell article over the weekend in which it reported that Russia has been using the pre-text of intellectual property enforcement to seize computers from NGO groups involved in advocacy and dissent. The article notes that the authorities have been receiving active assistance from Microsoft, which had been delivering statements describing the company as a victim and asking for criminal charges against the NGO groups. While human rights groups had been pressing Microsoft to address the issue for months, it only responded yesterday after the article’s publication. The company now says it will offer free blanket licences for its products to NGOs to prevent actions under the guise of IP enforcement. It will also establish a new legal assistance program to assist NGOs who need to respond to enforcement actions.
While the Microsoft response is a good one, it must be noted the abuse of IP enforcement is surely connected to efforts by the U.S. government and copyright lobby groups to actively encourage Russia to increase its IP enforcement. The US has regularly cited Russia in its Special 301 report, this year including it on the Priority Watch list. The IIPA, the industry lobby group that includes software associations, pushed the U.S. to target Russia, saying that is imperative that prosecutors bring more IPR cases. In fact, the IIPA complained that Russian authorities do not seize enough computers when conducting raids. On top of all this is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which will provide Russia with a template to follow on IP enforcement, including new seizure powers with less court oversight.
It has often been pointed out that the ACTA/Special 301 report approach seeks to export tougher enforcement measures – often to countries where free speech is not a given – without including the exceptions, due process, and balancing provisions. The recent Russian case highlights why this is such a dangerous and misguided approach that is apt to cause more problems than it solves.
Update II: Public Knowledge adds its perspective.