CHINA - 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 rumours online that defame, blackmail or provoke.
Those who concoct or edit information that damages an individual's or organisation's reputation and share this directly or through others can be charged with libel, a criminal offence 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 per cent 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 offence 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 rumours, 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 specialising 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 rumours 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.
Detentions over false info
Qin Zhihui, better known by his online name of Qin Huohuo, was arrested by Beijing police in August for fabricating rumours on the Internet, thus harming others' reputations. He is accused of the crime of provoking trouble.
Qin, 30, said on his micro blog that the government had paid 200 million yuan (S$41.6 million) in compensation to a foreign passenger after two trains collided in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, on July 23, 2011, which was later proved to be fake information, police said.
Yang Xiuyu, whose online persona is Lier Chaisi, was also detained by Beijing police in August for spreading fake information and is being held on suspicion of running an illegal business.
Yang, founder of the Erma Co, allegedly spread rumours to attract followers and "helped" others to delete posts in return for money.
Liu Hu, a journalist working for Xinkuaibao, a newspaper in Guangdong province, was also detained by Beijing police in August for fabrication and dissemination of rumours online. He is being held on suspicion of provoking trouble.
Zhou Lubao, from Gansu province, was arrested in August for extortion linked to spreading online rumours, with police in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, alleging he posted more than 15,000 items of fake information last year and blackmailed more than 20 departments and individuals.
Fu Xuesheng, 47, president of Shanghai LabInfo Technologies Ltd, was arrested by Shanghai police in August for making up online rumours that a female executive at State-owned oil giant Sinopec accepted sexual favors as a bribe from a foreign supplier.
Police did not specify what crime Fu was allegedly involved in.
At a glance
Activities that can lead to a charge of libel:
• Spreading defamatory information online that is viewed more than 5,000 times or forwarded more than 500 times
• Spreading fake information that results in a mental illness or the self-harming or suicide of victims or their family members
• Re-offending within two years
Maximum sentence: Three years in prison.
Activities that can lead to a charge of provocation:
• Threatening others by using false online information that results in serious public disorder
• Organizing others to spread fake information that results in serious public disorder
Maximum sentence: 10 years in prison
Activities that can lead to a blackmail charge:
• Threatening others with the purpose of obtaining large amounts of money or property through posting or deleting online information, or repeated offences
Maximum sentence: 15 years in prison
Source: Supreme People's Court and Supreme People's Procuratorate