When it comes to copyright enforcement and the government, EFF frequently warns that giving government agents a reason to censor, search, seize, and indict must be taken very seriously. Without safeguards and a thorough accounting of the consequences, laws and policies targeting so-called "pirates" can be used to pry away human rights and undermine fundamental elements of democracy and freedom.
We saw damning evidence of this unfold this past weekend. On Saturday, the New York Times broke news of Russian law enforcement officers raiding an environmental group's offices and confiscating computers. What excuse did the police officers give for raiding the environmental group? Because Russian security services were investigating claims (unfounded, as it turned out) that the group had unauthorized copies of Microsoft software.
The New York Times article goes on to explain that the raid on the environmental group is only a recent example of a growing pattern: "Across Russia, the security services have carried out dozens of similar raids against outspoken advocacy groups or opposition newspapers in recent years." For those familiar with the hard line copyright maximalist position — which holds that all copyright infringement should be swiftly prosecuted with harsh penalties regardless of the context — it was sadly unsurprising. (This risk is one reason that NGOs around the world choose free and open source tools that avoid the risk of copyright claims altogether.)
Fortunately, at this juncture, Microsoft has recognized this as an important human rights issue, and has responded responsibly and innovatively. The company plans to offer protection to advocacy groups and others who might be targeted for political reasons by issuing a blanket software license to advocacy groups and opposition newspapers in Russia and at least some other places in the world. The software license — which would allegedly be made easily and widely available — should help groups insulate themselves from political attacks and human rights violations clothed as accusations that Microsoft software has been stolen. (Whether or not law enforcement officials will respond to such a license when they're about to bust down the door of an advocacy group's office is another question entirely.) Microsoft has not said in which other countries it would offer this blanket license. We urge Microsoft to extend this offer worldwide.
But this issue isn't limited to Microsoft or to software. A sprawling, powerful group-of-groups in the content industry, including movie and music industry lobbyists, software companies, and others, is constantly demanding that governments worldwide be given new powers to search for and seize allegedly pirated materials, and that those governments should act on those powers forcefully. In the name of copyright enforcement, the lobby shortsightedly demands provisions that put human rights at risk throughout the world: the power for governments to censor parts of the Internet with so-called copyright filtering, power for governments' border agents to search travelers' goods for "infringing" items, power for governments to detain alleged infringers pre-trial.
If the copyright lobby gets their way with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) or if governments continue to act on the claim that "piracy" demands sweeping changes to Internet privacy and freedom, then we can generalize the New York Times headline — "Russia Uses Microsoft to Suppress Dissent" — into something we'll surely see more often: "Regime Uses Copyright Violations to Curtail Freedoms."
This episode should remind legislators and policymakers worldwide of the real risk that powers enacted in the name of copyright enforcement can to be used to do real harm. Ensuring balance in copyright law is not just good copyright policy — it's necessary to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms worldwide.
UPDATE: On September 23, 2010, Microsoft published details about their software license for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media organizations.