China will jail anyone caught using social media to spread "slanderous rumors" or "false information" for up to 10 years, according to a new legal interpretation of Internet restrictions, the official Xinhua news agency reports.
A court's interpretation says the spread of such rumors could automatically incur a three-year prison term, but if the post is read by 5,000 or more people and/or shared more than 500 times, the penalty could jump to 10 years in jail.
"People have been hurt and reaction in society has been strong, demanding with one voice serious punishment by the law for criminal activities like using the internet to spread rumors and defame people," court spokesman Sun Jungong said, speaking at a news conference quoted by the People's Daily website.
"No country would consider the slander of other people as 'freedom of speech,' " he said.
The Telegraph quoted Mo Shaoping, a leading human rights lawyer, as saying he "hoped the measures would help prevent 'absurd' cases such as one where a micro-blogger was arrested for tweeting that nine people had died in an accident when, in fact, the true number was only seven."
"[But] if not handled properly, this might have negative effect on freedom of speech and the online fight against corruption," he added. "I believe that in the near future online free speech and the exposure of corruption will be suppressed."
Yuan Yulai, another rights lawyer who has over 1.3 million followers on China's Twitter-like microblog Weibo, complained that the interpretation had been published "too hastily" and without public consultation.
"China, home to more than 591 million Web users by the end of June, censors the Internet by blocking access to websites with pornography, gambling and content critical of the Communist Party's rule.
"China's Internet is 'not a space outside the law,' Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing today in response to a question about the legal interpretation. 'The actions taken by the Chinese government on the Internet have been highly supported by the Chinese Internet users.' "