MOSCOW — Microsoft is vastly expanding its efforts to prevent governments from using software piracy inquiries as a pretext to suppress dissent. It plans to provide free software licenses to more than 500,000 advocacy groups, independent media outlets and other nonprofit organizations in 12 countries with tightly controlled governments, including Russia and China.
With the new program in place, authorities in these countries would have no legal basis for accusing these groups of installing pirated Microsoft software.
Microsoft began overhauling its antipiracy policy after The New York Times reported last month that private lawyers retained by the company had often supported law enforcement officials in Russia in crackdowns on outspoken advocacy groups and opposition newspapers.
At first, Microsoft responded to the article by apologizing and saying it would focus on protecting these organizations in Russia from such inquiries.
But it is now extending the program to other countries: eight former Soviet republics — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — as well as China, Malaysia and Vietnam. Microsoft executives said they would consider adding more.
“We clearly have a very strong interest in ensuring that any antipiracy activities are being done for the purpose of reducing illegal piracy, and not for other purposes,” said Nancy J. Anderson, a deputy general counsel and vice president at Microsoft. “Under the terms of our new nongovernmental organization software license, we will definitely not have any claims and not pursue any claims against nongovernmental organizations.”
Software piracy inquiries against advocacy groups and media outlets in other former Soviet republics are less common than in Russia, but they have occurred. This year, the police in Kyrgyzstan raided an independent television station, and its employees said a lawyer retained by Microsoft had played a role.
In China, experts said they were not aware of many cases. They pointed out that if the security services wanted to hound or close advocacy groups, they had many other ways of doing so.
But China has been a minefield for American technology companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo and Google, which have grappled with the country’s Internet censorship, and it appears that Microsoft is hoping to avoid new controversies there.