In Russia, the internet was once seen as the last refuge of free speech. As the state's grip on television tightened and critical voices in the medium were suppressed, internet gained importance. People had unrestricted access to different sources of information and were able to express their opinions on social media and blogs. Even in the United States and European Union, politicians would call Russia's internet free, save for a few restrictions. This remains partially true.
It is still possible to find information on the web, but anyone who expresses an opinion on social networks, for example, by "liking" a video or comment on Facebook or the equivalent now risks having to pay a fine or even being given a prison sentence. Anything related to Crimea is considered to be especially touchy.
Social media user Andrey Bubeyev, for example, must spend two years and three months in a labor camp. A court in the central Russian city of Tver convicted the 40-year-old engineer of "promoting extremism." Bubeyev had made the fatal error of sharing an article titled "Crimea Belongs to Ukraine" on VKontakte (VK), Russia's version of Facebook. Furthermore, he shared a drawing of a hand squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Underneath it was written "Press Russia out of you." The Russian human rights organization Memorial considers Bubeyev a political prisoner.
Compared to that, the sentence 46-year-old saleswoman Yekatarina Volozaninova got was mild. The single mother from Yekaterinburg was sentenced to 320 hours of social work. A court ordered her laptop to be destroyed. Volozaninova had shared pro-Ukrainian comments and a caricature of Russian President Putin on VK.
Convictions almost double
On Tuesday, Moscow's SOVA Center for human rights reported that the number of such convictions has nearly doubled in the past two years. In 2013, almost 100 verdicts were handed down on internet comments. The number increased to 194 in 2015. Almost every fifth person convicted received a prison term; most defendants had to pay fines or do social work.
Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Center, attributes the rise in criminal charges to technological development. "You can investigate extremism without getting up from your office chair," he told DW. Plus, it is very easy to identify people on social networks.
Verkhovsky said not all such charges were controversial. "Often, there are really unpleasant comments and videos of right-wing leanings and - less often - Islamist leanings," he said.
Russia has especially tightened its internet crime legislation since the annexation of Crimea. In June 2014, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that allows prison sentences of up to five years for inciting extremism on the internet. Hate speech or violation of human dignity can lead to a fine of up to 300,000 rubles (4,200 euros/$4,800) or a prison sentence of up to four years.
In December 2015, the blogger Vadim Tyumentsev from the Siberian city of Tomsk had to bear the full brunt of the law. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In his posts, he had accused local politicians of corruption and called for protests. The court classified his comments as extremist. Also, Tyumentsev comments on pro-Russian separatists and refugees in the Ukraine were seen as hate speech.
Damir Gainutdinov, a legal analyst at the human rights organization Agora, found the Tyumentsev trial "outrageous." "There is a clear tendency," Gainutdinov told DW. "It has become clear to state powers that blocking access to the internet is not enough to fight information." He added: "That is why Internet users are now under more pressure."
Some well-known bloggers have left Russia to escape potential convictions. One of them, a Moscow political expert and sharp critic of the Kremlin, Andrey Piontkovsky, emigrated in February of this year. According to reports, he faced charges of extremism because he had written a critical blog post about Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov on the website of the radio station Echo of Moscow.
Pressure on internet users will increase. A few weeks ago, the Duma passed a controversial anti-terror package that will come into force on July 20. Anyone who publicly calls for "terrorist activities" or justifies such activities, risks having to pay a fine of 1 million rubles and could face a prison sentence of five to seven years. The draft had originally included a travel ban, but lawmakers deleted that because of public criticism.