Leaks Reveal Microsoft Links To Tunisian Regime

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A leaked diplomatic cable has reveal concern over Microsoft’s links to the former Tunsian regime

A leaked cable from Wikileaks has revealed diplomatic concern over Microsoft’s links to the former Tunisian regime.

Tunisia was the first country to overthrow its government in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ movement that began in December 2010. Waves of demonstrations and protests resulted in the replacement of  the repressive regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Similar movements subsequently erupted in other parts of the Middle East.

Embassy Cable

And now an embassy cable has been made public by Wikileaks, that shows that Redmond provided IT training, 12,000 software licences, plus Microsoft source code to the former Tunsian regime.

The cable was sent by the US embassy in Tunisia and is dated September 2006. It reveals that Microsoft reached agreement with the Tunisian government at a forum in South Africa in July 2006. The US embassy seems to have been frustrated that neither Microsoft nor GOT (Government of Tunisia) gave it any information on the deal.

“Although signed in July (2006), information about the agreement has not been forthcoming from either the GOT (Government of Tunisia) or Microsoft and, despite repeated requests, Microsoft has yet to provide post with a copy of the final agreement,” said the cable.

Three months later however, Microsoft Tunisia’s director general Salwa Smaoui gave an overview of the agreement to the US consulate’s Economics Office.

The agreement revealed that Microsoft had agreed to train handicapped Tunisians in IT, although Microsoft’s Smaoui suggested this was influenced by the fact that the wife of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ran a charity for handicapped Tunisians.

“As part of the agreement, Microsoft will help the GOT to upgrade and modernise its computers and networking capabilities,” read the cable. “In turn, the GOT agreed to purchase twelve thousand licenses to update government computers with official Microsoft software, rather than the pirated versions that have been commonly used, according to one Microsoft employee.”

Open Source

The agreement was considered as a way to stop the government of Tunisia from using unlicensed versions of Microsoft’s software.

But it is also clear that the agreement helped persuade the government of Tunisia drop its policy of only using open source software.

“Since 2001, the GOT adopted an open software policy, using only free software programs,” read the cable. “Additionally, future GOT tenders for IT equipment will specify that the equipment must be Microsoft compatible, which is currently prohibited by the Tunisian open software policy.”

In addition, Microsoft also agreed to provide IT training to the former Tunisian regime.

“Through a program on cyber criminality, Microsoft will train government officials in the Ministries of Justice and Interior on how to use computers and the Internet to fight crime. As part of this program, Microsoft will provide the GOT [Government of Tunisia] with original source codes for its program,” the cable read.

Diplomatic Concerns

But there were also diplomatic fears that the IT training that Microsoft provided to the Tunisian government risked being utilised to further oppress its citizens.

“Microsoft’s reticence to fully disclose the details of the agreement further highlights the GOT emphasis on secrecy over transparency,” said the cable. “In theory, increasing GOT law enforcement capability through IT training is positive, but given heavy-handed GOT interference in the Internet, Post questions whether this will expand GOT capacity to monitor its own citizens,” it continued.

“Ultimately, for Microsoft the benefits outweigh the costs,” the cable concludes.

Microsoft did not provide eWEEK Europe UK with a response at the time of writing.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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