China has stepped up its crackdown on online rumors by issuing [zh] a judicial framework for prosecuting offenders. 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, according to a judicial interpretation released on September 9, 2013.
The new guideline, issued by the Supreme People's Court, defines the criteria for convicting and sentencing offenders. This includes causing a mass incident, disturbing public order, inciting ethnic and religious conflicts, and damaging the state's image.
According to Xinhua news, Shen Yang, a professor from Wuhan University specializing in microblogging cases, welcomed the judicial interpretation, saying it will help clean up the Internet.
Over the past month, China has detained a number of suspects. The move is seen as part of President Xi Jinping's new policy of online control. In July 2013, singer Wu Hongfei was detained after allegedly threatening to bomb a government building on Sina Weibo. Liu Hu, a Chinese journalist, was also detained by Beijing police in August for fabrication and dissemination of rumors online.
Given how easy it is to manipulate social media activity, people will need to be very careful about what they post, as anyone with a grudge or an agenda could quickly push a target's message over those thresholds. Many netizens expressed anger towards the new policy.
“Dunan Guandian” [zh] wrote:
Whether someone has committed a crime is in the hands of other netizens. If others don't retweet, he's a good citizen, if others retweet, he has committed a crime.
“Shen biji” [zh] joked:
I just registered 500 accounts, if anyone annoys me, I will take revenge by retweeting his or her sensitive posts.
The new policy has also prompted concerns about freedom of speech in China.
“Yangfan qu yuanhang” [zh] wrote:
From this policy I can't see any sign of reform from the new government, I can only see the impulse to control citizens’ speech.
“EyeOfShaka” [zh] wrote：
The policy that does not allow negative comments is tyranny. “Rumors” forwarded 500 times can earn you time in jail, this is simply ridiculous. This is to tell everyone, “You must ensure that what you say is the truth, or I can retweet you 500 times, and crush you with the excuse of spreading rumors.” The underline meaning is that if you don't behave, I will punish you.
Professor Chen Wanying at HK University commented [zh]:
Law is needed to create an atmosphere to combat rumors, but we need to create a space for people to speak and explore, or it not conducive to innovation and national development.