Russia’s siloviki, or representatives of the power structures, are waging a war on Internet users they consider “extremists.” The crackdown dates back to 2014, when Article 282 of the Criminal Code was amended, enabling the prosecution of Internet users who “incite hatred against individuals or groups on the basis of gender, race, nationality, language, origin, religion, or membership in a social group.” Since then, the law’s application has grown steadily, from 185 convictions in 2013 to 461 in 2017.

At worst, those convicted face between two and five years in prison, while some others are admitted to psychiatric hospitals. However, anyone charged with extremism is automatically added to an official registry of extremists and terrorists. That makes it impossible for suspects to use a credit or debit card or withdraw more than 10,000 rubles (around $150) from the bank per month. It also makes it difficult for them to keep a job, let alone find a new one.

The law’s most egregious abuses have occurred in places far from Moscow, such as Barnaul, a city that has been dubbed Russia’s “extremism capital” because of the proliferation of online extremism cases there. Most of them involve young defendants whose plight—being prosecuted for sharing Internet memes—has outraged Russian parents. In mid-August, an estimated 2,000 protesters held a “mothers’ march” in Moscow in spite of torrential rain and threats from the authorities. In response, the authorities released two teenage defendants from pre-trial detention, putting them under house arrest instead.

Eager to win Moscow’s approval at a time when protests in the regions are unsettling the center, provincial siloviki have applied Article 282 with zeal. Underscoring the political motivations behind online extremism cases, investigations often begin with the name of a Kremlin critic, not the extremist content they are alleged to have posted, liked, or shared. According to defendants, such as Maria Motuznaya in Barnaul, the tip-offs sometimes come from pro-Kremlin activists or, even more disturbingly, university students who are materially rewarded for denouncing their peers.

Polling by the Public Opinion Foundation shows that, by a margin of 43 to 36 percent, Russians now consider the majority of online extremism cases to be unfounded. Many feel that the law must be either amended or repealed.

Remarkably, that is not just the view of human rights activists and opposition figures, who run the greatest risk of being targeted by Article 282. The law is also under attack from within the political elite, from judges and lawmakers to ministers and even the Kremlin itself.

For the Kremlin, the backlash against Article 282 has risked jeopardizing a strategy, perfected over years, of eschewing mass repression in favor of targeted, surgical pressure on opposition forces. This approach has insulated the authorities from accusations of Soviet-style repression while allowing them to silence their critics.

Article 282 came to threaten this strategy thanks to Russia’s law enforcement culture, in which a high conviction rate serves as an indicator of success in fighting crime, even if the convictions are on trumped-up charges. In trying to please the center, provincial siloviki have inadvertently created a crisis for Moscow and drawn rare resistance from both the public and the political elite.

Internet giant Group—the parent company of social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, whose cooperation with the siloviki has become a significant reputational risk—has led calls to repeal Article 282 and grant amnesty to its victims. VKontakte has also tried to allay the concerns of its users, who make up a majority of defendants in online extremism cases, by giving them greater, if illusory, control over profile privacy settings.

Ideas as to how to rein in the war on online extremism have come from figures of moderation, such as human rights ombudsman Tatiana Moskalkova and the Supreme Court, as well as the siloviki themselves. For example, in July, high-ranking Interior Ministry official Vladimir Makarov suggested that investigators establish the extremist intentions of suspects before charging them.

The Kremlin has taken up the issue as well. In a live, televised question-and-answer session held in June, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the excesses of the siloviki, urging them not to take the crackdown on online extremism to “absurd” lengths. Later, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, told reporters that some online extremism cases “are, so to speak, beyond the bounds of reason.”

Now, Putin has personally submitted amendments to Article 282 that would reserve criminal charges—and prison sentences—for repeat offenders and those who call for violence or justify its use. The prosecutor general has also moved to bring the war on extremism “under special control,” requiring provincial siloviki to inform the center whenever new extremism cases are opened.

The Kremlin’s decision to amend rather than repeal Article 282 suggests that it still views the law as a valuable—and viable—instrument of repression. The proposed changes will likely reduce the frequency with which siloviki file criminal charges over online extremism. Administrative charges, however, are certain to multiply, making Putin’s response a tactical retreat in the face of widespread criticism.

Tellingly, provincial law enforcement agencies seem to be undeterred by all the fuss. They have continued to file charges and hand down convictions, and, in the Ivanovo Region, have even hired contractors to closely monitor VKontakte users for extremist statements.

Indeed, the Russian Internet will remain unfree. Even as Russia’s political elite attacks Article 282, it continues to eye new repressive measures. A day before Putin intervened to amend Article 282, he signed into law a bill threatening those who repeatedly fail to remove “disputed” information from the Internet with up to two years in prison. Plus, Internet users can still end up behind bars and designated as extremists for, among other things, offending the feelings of the faithful.

Meanwhile, architects of Internet restrictions—such as Oleg Ivanov, Russia’s new deputy digital development minister and, reportedly, the man behind the ban on Telegram—are rising in the ranks. The Kremlin may be reining in its war on online extremism, but digital rights in Russia are certain to remain under attack for the foreseeable future.

  • Lincoln Pigman