People who offer money to network service providers or posters of information to have material deleted will be subject to penalties, under a guideline issued by the Supreme People's Court on Thursday.
The guideline, which has been in the making for two years, invalidates any agreement whose purpose is the deletion of online information in public space.
It would apply, for example, in the case of a company that wants a negative public comment about it removed, or when a poster has second thoughts about a comment he made and wants to retract it.
The court aims to clarify who is responsible in cases in which online posts are illegally weeded out, or when people are paid to post favourable or unfavorable comments.
The so-called water army or shuijun－a reference to people who serve or "carry water" for a particular business or person－can boost reputations by creating the impression that the online voices are genuine, when in truth the voices are purchased.
It's something clients are willing to pay for, including some public relations companies and celebrities.
The underground industry that takes money to eliminate online posts is illegal, and it provides profit to people or companies with bad motives, according to the court's spokesman, Sun Jungong.
"Some posters, as well as workers at network service providers, often use their computer skills to make money, and that leads to a disorderly Internet," Sun said.
The new guideline reaches beyond paid positive information. Negative information is banned as well. Anyone who hires, organises or asks others to publish or forward damaging online information in violation of rights should be penalized, it said.
In addition, Web users' private information, including home addresses, health conditions and crime records, must not be released to the public, the guideline said, adding that posters and websites will face civil punishments if their disclosures harm users.
Yi Shenghua, a Beijing criminal lawyer, spoke highly of the guideline, saying it's time to draw clear lines of civil responsibility in cyberspace.
"Some residents intend to solve problems via 'purchase', or through private channels, such as paying people to help delete posts," Yi said. "This will make such illegal activity more serious."
A private agreement to pay for the elimination of a certain class of online postings can be regarded as a form of bribery, he said.
"We cannot tolerate people disturbing online information by accepting and offering bribes," he said.
To maintain a healthy Internet marketplace, workers at websites, as well as members of the community, should report information about paid manipulation of data, Yi said.
In September 2013, the top court issued a judicial interpretation that said people who benefit from the deletion of online posts are engaging in an illegal business operation and will be subject to criminal punishment if their illicit gains are more than 50,000 yuan (S$10,350).
In August, Yang Xiuyu, founder of Erma Co and known online as "Lier Chaisi", stood trial in Chaoyang District People's Court in Beijing for such an illegal business operation after receiving 531,200 yuan to help remove unfavorable online posts and publish rumours from May 2012 to September 2013.
"Civil liability is necessary," Yi said. "When illegal behaviours are harmful enough, they should be criminally punished－even if it's 500 yuan to delete a post."
But Wang Guohua, another lawyer specialising in online cases, said the guideline should not restrict those who publish proper posts, or Internet development generally.
In addition, courts must decide whether website operators have any liability in the water-carrying cases, "as most of them have no idea about the paid posters," he said.