- Language Tips
Offenders could be sentenced to 3 years in prison under guideline
Internet users who share false information that is defamatory or harms the national interest face up to three years in prison if their posts are viewed 5,000 times or forwarded 500 times, under a judicial interpretation released on Monday.
The new guideline, issued by the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate, defines the criteria for convicting and sentencing offenders who spread rumors online that defame, blackmail or provoke.
Those who concoct or edit information that damages an individual's or organization's reputation and share this directly or through others can be charged with libel, a criminal offense in China, under the interpretation.
At a news briefing on Monday, Sun Jungong, a spokesman for the top court, promised that netizens who help expose corruption online will not face charges, even if their posts are not 100 percent accurate.
The interpretation also defines "serious cases" of defamation using false online information and the penalty for "serious breaches" of the law — a maximum of three years in prison.
Internet users whose posts have a significant negative effect on victims or their families, such as mental illness, will be investigated as a "serious case", the interpretation states, as will those who re-offend within two years.
However, Sun said prosecutors can only bring criminal charges for defamation if an offense has gravely harmed social order or the national interest.
This includes causing a mass incident, disturbing public order, and inciting ethnic and religious conflicts. Multiple cases of libel and damaging the State's image also fall into this category.
The interpretation also states that profiting from helping people to delete posts is illegal. Anyone who gains by more than 20,000 yuan ($3,270) through this practice will see their case treated as "serious".
Sun said the number of China's netizens reached 591 million as of June.
Police have detained people for spreading false information as part of crackdowns on online rumors, but a lack of detailed guidelines led to inconsistencies in the handling of cases from province to province.
Shen Yang, a professor at Wuhan University's School of Computer Science and Information Management specializing in micro-blogging cases, welcomed the judicial interpretation, saying it will help to clean up the Internet and crack down on extortion through deleting online posts.
"Those who benefit from helping others to wipe out posts will obviously be restricted in line with the interpretation, which can effectively curb illegal business or operations," he said.
However, he said that in the short run the interpretation may deter some netizens, making them cautious about sharing their opinions.
But he said police should think twice if they tackle libelous or damaging rumors posted online and viewed at least 5,000 times or forwarded 500 times, because some people may take advantage of these limits to attack others and cause new disputes.
Liu Deliang, a law professor at Beijing Normal University, agreed and said the damage to a person's reputation cannot be judged by looking at such statistics.
"There is not necessarily a connection between the number of clicks for information and the damage to victims," he said. "If we just use the number of times a post is forwarded or scanned to define a situation as serious, it will be too simple."
Beijing lawyer Chen Jiangang said the forwarding and viewing figures will be easy to obtain if a celebrity or popular micro-blogger forwards a post.
When this happens, no one is unwilling to share ideas, and it will not be good for the Internet's development, he warned.
Chen defended rock singer Wu Hongfei who was detained after allegedly threatening on her micro blog on July 21 to bomb a government building.
Zong Zheng, a micro-blogger on Sina Weibo, China's largest Twitter-like service, voiced his concern over the interpretation, saying he will be more discreet when posting online.
"The interpretation sounds strict, which makes me nervous," the 29-year-old said.