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Why is Microsoft offering free software to Russian NGOs?

The Russian authorities have been using antipiracy laws to target government critics, and local activists say Microsoft officials have aided in the process.

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Microsoft, which activists in Russia accuse of assisting in a wave of selective antipiracy prosecutions against Russian government critics, has offered free software to nongovernmental organizations and independent journalists as a way to end the problem.

Microsoft's offer on Monday was cautiously welcomed by Russian activists, and followed a storm of controversy stirred up Sunday by allegations in The New York Times that the company's local representatives and lawyers have sometimes cooperated with authorities aiming to shut down public organizations they don't like, using allegations that pirated software was installed on their computers.

Microsoft "must accept responsibility and assume accountability for our antipiracy work, including the good and the bad," Microsoft's chief lawyer Brad Smith said in the statement. "To prevent nongovernment organizations from falling victim to nefarious actions taken in the guise of antipiracy enforcement, Microsoft will create a new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal copies of our products."

He added that the company plans to retain an outside law firm to review its overall antipiracy policies, and will address the special circumstances in Russia by setting up an "NGO Legal Assistance Program" to help small public groups prove to authorities that the programs running in their computers are now legal, regardless of their origin.

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