New rules unveiled by China on Monday have marked judicial boundaries for what kind of online words or conduct can be considered criminal, offering more effective means to curb online rumors.
According to a judicial interpretation issued by China's top court and procuratorate, people who post slanderous comments online will face up to three years in prison if their statements are widely reposted.
People will face defamation charges if the online rumors they create are viewed by at least 5,000 Internet users or retweeted 500 or more times.
The interpretation defines "serious cases" of the spread of false information online or the paid deletion of messages based on the severity of social and financial impact.
The newly unveiled rules offer answers for the lingering problem of unclear sentencing criteria for illegal Internet activities in China.
As the Internet has grown into an easily accessible platform for the Chinese public, an increase in crimes such as defamation and blackmail has occurred online over the past few years.
Due to the impact of the Internet, these cases have done greater social harm than traditional offenses, with some even disrupting social order and triggering unrest.
The new rules could serve as a warning to malicious Internet users that they should not break a legal "bottom line" when posting online.
However, the top court's spokesman, Sun Jungong, stressed that Internet users are still encouraged to expose corruption and other violations despite the new rules, adding that as long as web users are not fabricating information to slander others, they will not face criminal charges.
Over the past month, police across China have detained a number of suspects and closed several businesses for fabricating online rumors.
The new rules are another means for authorities to ensure the healthy development of the Internet.
Still, criminal penalties should be considered a last resort to be used cautiously.
Online rumors should be curbed by the rule of law and a sound social and ethical environment.
Judicial bodies should act strictly in accordance with the law, with no good person wronged and no offender pardoned, so as to ensure citizens' legitimate freedom of expression.