Piracy Raids Lead to Blanket Microsoft Licenses for Russian Advocacy Groups

By Marianna Tishchenko

This front page New York Times article, which describes how Russian officials have used trumped up charges of software piracy to pressure Russian advocacy groups, led quickly to a blanket license for Russian NGOs from Microsoft. The article appeared on Sunday; the blanket license was announced on Monday. Microsoft lawyers are now also are effectively prohibited from assisting in these cases.

The raids, however, have taken place since 2007. Russian security services have conducted dozens of raids on Russian NGOs and media organizations that voice their opposition to the country’s leadership, according to the article. Although Russian officials have claimed that the raids have no political basis, the Times notes the government “rarely if ever” conducts such inspections for advocacy groups and news organizations that support the government, suggesting that officials have used piracy concerns as an excuse to silence dissenters.

Cliff Levy of the Times focuses on one case involving the Russian environmental NGO Baikal Environmental Wave. Russian police stormed the NGO in January—supposedly in order to investigate its possession of illegal software after receiving a ‘civilian complaint’—and confiscated staff computers that may have contained illegally downloaded software. The NGO insisted that it had paperwork that could prove that the Microsoft products had been legally purchased. Russian officials were not interested in seeing it, however.

The fact that Baikal Environmental Wave had been planning protests against a government-sponsored reopening of a paper factory near Lake Baikal when Russian officials stormed their facility makes their intentions suspect.

Since the release of the NYT article, a great deal of speculation has surrounded Microsoft’s role in raids. And in an attempt to dispel rumors and ward off criticism, Microsoft issued a statement on Sept. 13, in which it expressed strong disapproval of the use of software piracy concerns as a scapegoat for “nefarious purposes.” The company also announced its intention to create a unilateral software license for NGOs that will give them free and legal software.

“Whatever the circumstances of the particular cases the New York Times described, we want to be clear that we unequivocally abhor any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain,” Senior Vice President and Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said in the statement. “We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behavior.”

One hopes that Microsoft will get out ahead of any efforts by other governments to carry out similar raids in other countries.

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A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Tweets

This is a visual representation of the Moscow metro bombing discussion on Twitter. It is a word cloud of 1000 random tweets from the #moscow hashtag (which saw a five fold increase after the bombings) based on research we’re doing with the Sam Gilbert and the Web Ecology Project. We are still working through #metro29 and other hashtags that were more popular among Russian language Twitter users. Turns out it’s pretty hard to say anything too original in 140 characters.

And for comparison, here’s a word cloud representing the discussion on the bombings in the US and Russian press, drawn from the full text of 68 articles related to the bombing from Johnson’s Russia List. Both clouds were created with Wordle.

This is intended mostly as a fun experiment as we build more accurate tools to make these type of inter platform comparisons, but it is still pretty striking to see how limiting Twitter can be when trying to tell a story. In any case, it is still far better than Russian TV news.

Update: I replaced an earlier Twitter cloud to strip out the date, which I think was a cut and paste error on my part, since that doesn’t appear in the text of the Tweets.

Twitter sees strong growth in Russia

As I wrote last week, Twitter is starting to expand beyond its English-language roots in the US. Yesterday the Russian search engine Yandex released a short fact sheet on Russian language Twitter users. Here are the highlights (via Nick Wilson):

* Yandex estimates 183 thousand Russian accounts on Twitter
* More than 60% of Russian-speaking users update their Twitter stream every day
* 67% of all Tweets contain links, 8% of Tweets contain links to the media.
* During the winter 2009-2010 the number of Russian-speaking users on Twitter has
increased by 42%. In the year period from March 2009 to March 2010, by 26%.
* About 150 thousand Tweets (messages) are posted each day in Russian. 5% of them are ReTweets.
* There are more than 125 thousands links published on Twitter each day.
* Yandex studies more than 20 microblogging services in RuNet. Every day, more than 2 millions entries are made.

Perhaps most interesting is how strong the growth is during the winter compared to spring – gotta do something during those long Russian winters I guess. Yandex has also created a list of the most popular Russian Twitter users. Not much on the substance of the discussions taking place, but we are starting to dig into that now.

50 Million Tweets a Day

twitter growth

According to the Twitter blog, last year Twitter use grew by 1,400%, and now there are over 50 million tweets a day, or 600 a second on average. Our friends at the Web Ecology Project have done some of the best early research on Twitter. While #iranelection was a major story in 2009, it pales in comparison to the number of Tweets about Michael Jackson’s death (78 per second at its peak) over a similar two week period. In fact, it appears that Jackson’s death actually sucked all the air out of the Iran election discussion on Twitter, according to what Ethan Zuckerman tells me based on Media Cloud data.
While this remains primarily an English language and US-centered technology, it has been interesting to see the growth of other languages, including Russian, which we are digging into more deeply, (to say nothing of the strength of Malay(!) on Twitter). The Russian search giant Yandex already has a number of Tweeters among their top 1000 bloggers, and they reported last year that microblogging platforms have seen impressive growth, led by Twitter but also including Juick, a Jabber application. Whether or not all of this is a good thing we’ll leave up to others to debate, but it seems that the people are voting with their feet on this one.
twitter languages
Hat Tip: The Daily Dish

Russian Independent Paper Suffers Week-Long Cyber Attack

The fiercely independent Novaya Gazeta has been under a sustained DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack for the last week. Many have speculated that the site came under attack because of a story last week on corruption by Yulia Latynina, but the deputy editor of the paper told the Sydney Morning Herald that the paper had “many friends” who might like to see the paper at least temporarily inaccessible. The new Russian version of Herdict, called Nardict, Berkman’s distributed Web filtering reporting tool, confirms that the site is still inaccessible around the world and in Russia.

While the Russian government doesn’t actively filter the Internet, it does shut down extremist content, and, as the Moscow Times notes, the government is suspected of supporting similar DDOS attacks against targets in Georgia and Ukraine, while the leader of a pro-Kremlin youth group admitted to orchestrating DDOS attacks against Estonian government and banking sites in 2007.

Although the attacks have weakened from a high of 1.5 million hits a second last Thursday, the paper’s servers remain overwhelmed. However, the newspaper’s stories continue to appear on its LiveJournal blog. The editors wrote on the blog that:

We understand that the purpose of a hacker attack was undoubtedly to hamper the free flow of information across the network.

We also believe that the network nature of the Internet is always stronger than any attacker, any botnet, or any DDoS-attacks.

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Moscow’s New Rules for Newspapers

Adam Federman has an excellent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on the state of the Russian press, and the informal set of rules journalists must navigate to avoid the wrath of the Kremlin and their wealthy friends. As the Times recently noted, the atmosphere for political dissent on Russian TV has been so bad for so long that Russian political TV stars have had to flee to neighboring Ukraine to find work, leaving radio stations like Echo Moskvyi, newspapers and Internet publications to pick up the slack.

While it is difficult to underestimate the chilling effects of the assasination of journalists on political reporting (four from Novoya Gazeta alone have been killed), Federman found a number of Russians willing to navigate the maze of political and financial red lines that if crossed can lead to the end of their careers, or even their lives, in pursuit of hard hitting stories on corruption and critical analysis of the government. As one western reporter who covers Russia told Federman: “For every journalist who gets killed there must be twenty who decide that they’re not going to write the story that they might have written.” But, as Federman writes, there is some room left for optimism:

[L]ately the faint outlines of a new paradigm seem to be emerging. Several independent magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, Forbes, The New Times, Vedomosti, and Novaya Gazeta, have survived longer than might have been expected given the circumstances. And they usually publish what they want, free of interference from the state. At the same time, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, has made a point of reaching out to critics, even granting Novaya Gazeta the first full-length interview of his presidency, an unimaginable gesture under Putin.

“We live on islands in Russia,” Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion-page editor of Vedomostitells me in a quiet café not far from the subway entrance where Markelov and Baburova were shot last January. He’s referring to the large body of state-controlled media—what he calls a continent—and the small handful of independent newspapers and magazines that publish freely. Last June, Vedomosti launched an investigative desk, headed by Irina Reznik, a leading expert on Gazprom, who writes frequently about Putin’s circle of friends. “If you do it the right way, usually you can do it and get away with it,” Trudolyubov says.

And even though it’s reach is still quite limited, the Internet has provided another inexpensive route for quality journalism (and, as we’ve noted here before, Internet penetration is expanding rapidly).

[S]everal Russian Web sites have become increasingly important as both sources of information and public forums. Newsru.com and grani.ru are the pet projects of Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, respectively, exiled oligarchs and media moguls who were early casualties of the Putin era. According to a 2008 Reuters Institute report on the Web in Russia, both sites “carry generally reliable and often critical information and comment.” Meanwhile, other large news sites—including gazeta.ru and the liberal-leaning lenta.ru—have expanded their presence.

For now the Web is a largely unregulated and open space. In 2007, when the FSB unofficially tried to force Moscow Internet providers to block access to a host of Web sites, including kasparov.ru, a political news site founded by Garry Kasparov, the chess legend, only a handful acquiesced. Oleg Panfilov, director of Moscow’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who is working on a study of the Internet and freedom of speech in Russia, says that even though the authorities are starting to use legal measures, such as a relatively new law against extremism, to intimidate and even silence bloggers, it is too late for them to turn the Web into a kind of state-run media monopoly. “It is technically impossible to control the Internet in Russia,” he told me. Unlike China, Panfilov says, Internet service providers in Russia are privately owned, and have largely resisted efforts on the part of the state to manipulate content.

I think our different research platforms here at Berkman will be able to tell us a great deal about just how different the stories in these ‘islands of freedom,’ especially those online, are from media outlets controlled by those close to the Kremlin, but in the mean time this piece is well worth the read for its qualitative take on the state of newspapers and independent journalism in Russia.

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Kremlin Tells Governors to Blog, or Pack their Bags

The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the Kremlin, worried about the waning influence of official mass media in the regions, has told regional governors to become active bloggers and participants in online social networks, or risk losing their posts. The article further explains that the governors’ Internet activities will become one of the criteria by which their effectiveness will be judged, and that those who do not perform well will be weeded out.

According Nezavisimaya Gazeta (my rough translation):

In the Kremlin…there is a fear that in the not too distant future, the use of virtual technologies, including blogs and social networks, will be used not only to form relations to the representatives of the ruling class, but also will have a real effect on the outcome of voting in elections.

The push is also part of a plan to expand broadband access to the regions, and it is expected that this will allow for both commercial and political development in the regions.

The governors will likely have a steep learning curve, since only three of the governors of Russia’s 89 regions currently have a blog–but the Kremlin says they have a good example to follow in President Medvedev.

Paul Gobel wonders if this will have unintended consequences–especially if Governors are allowed to speak freely about their priorities:

…this latest Kremlin drive may have some interesting consequences both for Russia and for those who study that country. For Russia, such an increase in largely uncontrolled media outlets almost certainly will lead to the expression of a greater range of opinions, even if those maintaining these blogs do not intend that.

And for those who study Russia, the rise of such blogs will require a new research approach, one that will increasingly have to track not just what is in the official or semi-official print and electronic media but also what senior officials and politicians are saying in this most febrile of media.

We’ll be all over this as part of our blog research if it pans out, but I personally doubt that the governors will be especially gifted bloggers, or that they will stray very far from the party line.

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Charges Dropped Against Russian Blogger

The opposition Web site Other Russia reports that the case against Russian blogger Dmitri Solovyov has been closed due to a lack of evidence. Solovyov is a blogger with the opposition youth movement Oborona. According to Radio Free Europe Solovyov was charged under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code with “inciting hatred and humiliating the human dignity of individual social groups” for his criticism the police and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who he said killed children and would not be able to break up the Oborona movement. Two groups of linguists determined that he did not use extremist language in his blog posts, which apparently led to the closure of the case.

According to the Oborona movement’s blog (my quick translation):

This idiotic and absurd affair dragged on for nearly a year and half, but in the end common sense prevailed – with Dmitri acquitted and everything that was seized during [police] searches returned.

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Yandex on the Russian Blogosphere

The wildly popularly Russian search engine Yandex has released another useful report on the Russian blogosphere based on its search data. While it is nearly silent on methods, it is nonetheless helpful to have another data point out there on the Russian blogosphere, which we’ve also been digging into at the Berkman Center following our Iranian and Arabic blogosphere research. Yandex finds the following on the Russian blogosphere (pdf), as of spring 2009:

The ‘average’ Russian blogger is a 22 year old woman who lives in Moscow and posts on LiveInternet or Diary.ru (this is the first blogosphere we’ve looked at in detail where female bloggers are in the majority, and about 20% to 30% more females than we find in Middle Eastern blogospheres we’ve studied). Women write more often, and also comment more frequently on others’ blogs, than men in Russia.

LiveJournal, which we are focusing on at the moment, has the most active traditional bloggers in Russia, and this platform also hosts more men and older bloggers than the rest of the blogosphere. Seventy-six percent of active Russian blogs are hosted on just four blog services (LiveJournal, blogs.mail.ru, ya.ru and liveinternet.ru.) Liveinternet has the most blogs, but 96% have not been updated in the last three months.

ya_blogosphere_report_eng.pdf (page 3 of 9)

Russian bloggers are posting less often than in the past:

Active blogs (those with at least five entries and that have been
updated at least once in the past three months) continue to decrease –
currently totaling to 12 %. While two years ago every second blog was
getting regular updates, last year only one out of five blogs was regularly

Perhaps because they are to busy Twittering: Twitter has grown in popularity, as has the Jabber-based Juick.com, but still there are only 7,000 Russian users according to Yandex. At 80%, its users post more frequently than any other traditional blog service, though.

London has the most active Russian bloggers outside of the former Soviet Union, followed by New York.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t go into any topical or political issues that bloggers discuss, and they also recently decided to stop listing the most popular daily topics on their blog data site, perhaps to avoid the same fate as mainstream media in Russia. More Yandex research here (in English), although the Russian research page is much richer (I’ve got my eye on the Ukrainian blogosphere report next).

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Russian Ministry Wants ISPs to Filter Internet

Evegeny Morozov over at Foreign Policy recently shared this story from the Russian site InfoX.ru, which reports that Russia is considering technical filtering options. ONI research has not found technical filtering in Russia to date, so if this plan goes through it could be one of the
first known instances of technical filtering in Russia. The article quotes the head of the Russian Ministry of Communications at length, who argues that ISPs should filter the internet for ‘negative content’ at public access points in order to protect children, including one proposal to create white and black lists of sites. A source in the Ministry of Internal Affairs “K squad” (basically, their Internet police) seems to agree with the general idea, saying:

The Internet without filters should be closed, at least in schools.

The justification is found in the somewhat Orwellian sounding bill ‘On the Protection of Children from Information which is Harmful to their Health and Development,’ which is still being debated in the Duma. InfoX reports the following reaction on the bill:

‘In the bill it is said that users should prove how old they are, and based on that the Internet is opened. If a user is silent on this count, users are considered to be six years old,’ said Mark Tverdynin, a representative of the Regional Public Center for Internet Technologies, ‘How a user is going to prove how old they are is unclear.’

According to Mark Tverdynina, providers may terminate your access to many sites under threat of punishment after this law is adopted. ‘There is a danger that this could turn everything into an Intranet instead of an Internet,’ said the expert.

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