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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Sudden Interest in Pirated Software

A series of raids in recent months suggests that the authorities may have found an innovative way to crack down on critics: allegations of using pirated software.

Most recently, the high-tech crimes unit of the Nizhny Novgorod police raided the offices of two nongovernmental organizations, the Tolerance Support Foundation and the Nizhny Novgorod Human Rights Society, as well as the local edition of Novaya Gazeta, an outspoken opposition newspaper, on Aug. 30 and 31.

On the pretext of searching for unlicensed computer programs, police confiscated four computers from the Tolerance Support Foundation, crippling the organization's work, and six from Novaya Gazeta, preventing the paper from releasing its next issue.

"Our work has stopped because of the confiscation of the computers," said Oksana Chelysheva, head of the city's branch of the Tolerance Support Foundation, which seeks to improve relations between different ethnic groups.

Similar raids took place in Samara in May, when police seized computers from the offices of the local edition of Novaya Gazeta and an NGO that was helping to organize an anti-Kremlin street protest.

The same month, police in Tula confiscated a computer from the Popular Democratic Union, the political movement that supports the presidential candidacy of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

Police said the Tula and Samara raids were justified because the computers had unlicensed software installed on them.

"There have been at least 10 such cases," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama, a think tank that tracks political groups.

Activists say the raids are examples of selective justice, given that software piracy is omnipresent in Russia, with unlicensed copies of programs such as Microsoft Office on sale at outdoor markets and kiosks throughout the country.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance, a coalition of seven industry groups, estimated last month that piracy rates in Russia ranged from 65 percent to 80 percent -- and some say even that may be a conservative estimate.

"This may not be a very nice aspect of Russian life," said Zakhar Prilepin, editor of the Nizhny Novgorod edition of Novaya Gazeta. "But in Russia it's perfectly clear that up to 90 percent of companies, and practically 99 percent of regional newspapers and medium-sized businesses, and 100 percent of private computers have some sort of pirated programs on them."

Prilepin characterized the raid on his newspaper as retaliation for its muckraking journalism and linked its timing to the start of the State Duma electoral campaign. Duma elections are scheduled for Dec 2.

By law, the authorities can keep the confiscated computers for one month, and then they can extend the period of confiscation for another month.

Prilepin said the newspaper would miss its next issue but was hopeful that sponsors would donate the money needed to buy new equipment soon. "There are still people interested in freedom of speech," he said.

The editor noted that the raid took place Aug. 30, the birthday of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who worked for Novaya Gazeta.

Nizhny Novgorod police denied that the raids on the newspaper and the NGOs had any political motive.

Police have searched more than 100 businesses and other organizations this year for unlicensed software, including a bread factory that was raided the same week as Novaya Gazeta, police spokesman Alexei Gorbatov said.

"There are three or four such raids per week," he said. "It's standard practice."

A preliminary inspection suggested that Novaya Gazeta's computers did have unlicensed software on them, Gorbatov said.

Prilepin said the most important programs used to design the newspaper's pages were definitely licensed, but said he was not sure what other programs might be found on the computer.

The risk of raids over pirated software may put cash-strapped newspapers and NGOs in a difficult position, since unlicensed programs are much cheaper and easier to find than their licensed equivalents.

For those organizations that do use licensed programs, it can be complex to keep the paperwork that would prove to police that the software is legal.

In a raid last week at the Moscow office of the BBDO advertising agency, police disrupted work for several hours to verify that all the software in the office was licensed. The agency had to obtain documents from its U.S.-based parent company, Omnicom Group, to prove that it was not violating the law.

A high-profile case this year involved the principal of a village school in the Perm region, Alexander Ponosov, who was put on trial after prosecutors found unlicensed copies of Microsoft Windows on school computers. Ponosov said he did not know the software was pirated, and a judge threw out the case against him in February.

"To work honestly in our country and to follow the letter of the law is unrealistic," said Lyudmila Konovalova, a lawyer specializing in consumers' rights. "These laws are written in a way that doesn't correspond to the reality we live in."

Raids in search of unlicensed software are another way for the authorities to pressure critical newspapers, NGOs and political parties, said Pribylovsky, the think tank analyst.

Pribylovsky's own computer was seized in June, although that raid was connected to a suspected disclosure of state secrets, not piracy.

"I'm not sure what kind of software I have, licensed or unlicensed," he said. "My copy of Windows is licensed, but as for my other stuff, I have no idea. I got some things at Gorbushka."

Gorbushka is a sprawling market in western Moscow famed for selling bootlegged software, music and movies.

Following last week's raids in Nizhny Novgorod, one local NGO struck back at the authorities with a sarcastic message on its web site.

The Committee Against Torture, which was not raided, posted a message Monday calling for local police and prosecutors to inspect their own offices for unlicensed programs.

Federal agencies have been known to use pirated software on their computers. Bootleg CD factories have been found at secret Defense Ministry sites.

When asked whether Nizhny Novgorod police used pirated software, Gorbatov said: "I can't say. I'm not ready to comment about that."