Windows on Russia
by David Essel
The overwhelming share of software running on computers in Russia is pirated. I have seen estimates as high as 90% and, from what I’ve seen, find it easy enough to believe. The Russian authorities do not do anything much about this. However, in November last year, a village headmaster, Alexander Ponosov, was suddenly advised that he would be prosecuted for having 12 computers in his school running unlicensed copies of Windows.Reuters has reported that after multiple hearings he has been found guilty and fined what for him is a large sum of money amounting to 2 weeks salary. In the same article Reuters also says that Russian state television has been portraying this as a David-and-Goliath battle. Loads of people, including some big names, have additionally been tapped for comments.
On 5 February, ex-President Gorbachev and Russian MP Alexander Lebedev addressed an open letter to Bill Gates in which they said that “the guilt of the teacher is very doubtful”, that “Ponosov has devoted his life to educating children, something for which he has received very modest rewards”, and that “he is now threatened with imprisonment in a Siberian labour camp.”
Putin has joined in, too. In a radio interview on 1 February, he said in reply to question: “It’s always easy to catch and hold someone but rather harder to get to the bottom of a matter. If the law needs changing or happens to be, as it seems to me, far from well-worded, we shall think about this. But to arrest someone who bought some computer from somewhere and threaten him with prison is absolute nonsense.”
Microsoft, an organisation which does not usually get any sympathy from me since I have never used anything other than a Mac, is quoted by Reuters as saying: “Mr. Ponosov’s case was initiated by Russian authorities under Russian law. Microsoft neither initiated nor has any plans to bring any action against Mr. Ponosov.” You can’t say fairer than that and in any event Microsoft has nothing to do with any of this.
So how come a lowly schoolteacher, ex-Presidents and ruling ones, and many more people besides are cropping up in this story? Well, because the whole thing is a piece of Russian propaganda, pursuing aims that have very little – say nothing whatsoever – to do with the activities of a village schoolteacher in rural Russia.
What it is actually all about is that Russia is applying to join the World Trade Organisation and is now able to point to how its is taking action against software piracy, one of the problems raised in the matter of whether it should be allowed to join. Will anyone have the courage to say that the action in question - persecuting Ponosov - is simply taking the p*ss given the scale of the problem in Russia? In fact, in a favourite move of KGB-style disinformation activities, the action is designed to kill two birds with one stone: to gain a propaganda advantage by making it look like the big horrid Western world is spoiling the life of the poor Russians, up to and including tiny pawns such as village schoolteachers, while at the same time also enabling Russia to cast a veil over the issue of the immense amount of money being made in Russia from the sale of pirated software.
This software is for sale all over the place in packaged CDs with the “crack” number, current price $6 or so per CD. This is big business: cost of content $0, cost of media and duplication - $1, profit 500%, volume of sales - hundreds of thousands. There are millionaires in this business. The same applies on an even larger scale to DVDs. We are talking protection of the kleptocracy here and nothing else. Russia has no intention of standing by any obligations that become incumbent on it if allowed into the WTO.
Another interesting thing to note is the irrationality of Russian law, or at least of its application. Why is the teacher being prosecuted, apart from having been selected for being a suitable Russian little man to be crushed by a faceless Western monolith? It’s so easy to believe that our critical minds switch off: however, he is in fact being crushed by Russian law as a result of decisions taken inside Russia, for heaven’s sake!
As to actual responsibility, with his salary, he can probably only just about feed his family. It’s hardly likely that Ponosov owns the computers in question. The owner of the computers must surely be the Ministry of Education. Ultimate responsibility for what is loaded on those computers must rest with the Ministry. Does it have a published policy that no pirated software is to be used in Russia’s educational institutions? Does it carry out audits of all its computers? Would it like to contract for an independent third party to audit the computers in its Moscow headquarters? I very much doubt it. But that’s what organisations with serious intent actually do.
As an aside, according to Russian Wikipedia, the public prosecution department of the district where Ponosov was charged installed licensed software in its computers only in 2006 and inspected Ponosov’s school on 25 May 2006. So what were its computers running prior to that? They should have prosecuted themselves.
I feel sorriest, after Ponosov, for poor old Gorby. Ever the innocent, it was easy to guess that he would fall for the “little Russian against the big bad Western company” line and let himself be roped in to write a letter to Bill Gates in defence of the schoolteacher. Or was this perhaps another “two birds with one stone” disinformation coup: get the propaganda noise of a letter from a big name and make a fool of an old enemy at the same time?