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Big Money Merges with Big Brother

PARIS – All over the world, Internet users entertain romantic delusions about cyberspace. To most of us Web surfers, the Internet provides a false sense of complete freedom, power, and anonymity.

Every once in a while, of course, unsolicited messages and ads that happen to be mysteriously related to our most intimate habits intrude. They remind us that we Internet users are, indeed, under constant virtual surveillance. When the watchers have only commercial motives, such “spam” feels like a minor violation. But in China or Russia, the Internet is patrolled not by unsolicited peddlers, but by the police.

So Russian human-rights activists and the environmental organization Baikal Environmental Wave should not have been surprised when, earlier this month, flesh and blood policemen – not Internet bots – confiscated their computers and the files stored within them. In the time of the Soviet Union, the KGB would have indicted these anti-Putin dissidents for mental disorders. This supposedly being a “new Russia,” cyber-dissidents are accused of violating intellectual property rights.

You see, they were using Microsoft-equipped computers and could not prove that the software had not been pirated. By confiscating the computers, the Russian police could supposedly verify whether or not the Microsoft software that the activists were using had been installed legally.