SPC spokesperson provides background to online defamation Judicial Interpretation

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This interview with the SPC’s Gao Jinghong was published on 16 October in Seeking Truth.

Cyberspace Should Have Laws and Rules, Citizens’ Rights Must Be Guaranteed According to the Law

– Interviewing the Supreme People’s Court Judicial Committee Full-Time Member Gao Jinghong

On 9 September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate jointly issued the “Interpretation concerning Some Issues of Applicable Law in Handling the Use of Information Networks to Commit Defamation and Other Such Criminal Cases” (hereafter simply named “Interpretation”), which clarified that cyberspace is public space, and that online order is an important component part of social and public order, it defined crime and punishment yardsticks for online defamation and other such acts, unified standards for judicial organs’ handling of corresponding criminal cases, and at the same time ensured that people understand that only if the law is obeyed in cyberspace, citizens’ rights can be guaranteed. As soon as the “Interpretation” was published, all walks of society paid close attention to it and responded enthusiastically to it. This journalist specially interviews the Supreme People’s Court Judicial Committee Full-Time Member Gao Jinghong, and asked him to explain some hot points and questions.

Q: The formulation and implementation of this “Interpretation” is an important step for our country in moving towards online rule of law. Please tell us a bit about its background, main content and importance.

A: Following the rapid development of information technology, information networks with the Internet at the centre, and including telecommunications networks and radio and television coverage networks have become more widespread every day, the “three network integration” trend emerged, which not only stimulated economic and social development, but also greatly made people’s work and lives more convenient, at the same time, it promoted the popular masses to positively exercise their rights of expression and supervision according to the law. It must also be seen that a number of lawbreakers use information networks as a new platform for crime, they recklessly commit defamation, provocation, extortion, blackmail, illegal business and other such crimes, criminal methods are becoming networked, the characteristic of illegal profit-seeking is prominent, the chain of organization clear, citizens’ rights to reputation, property and other lawful rights and interests were violated, and public order and market order is upset. The broad popular masses have strongly reacted against this, and there was a real need for punishment according to the law.

In recent years, in order to strengthen information network management and standardize information network order, the State has successively rolled out a series of laws and regulations, including the NPC Standing Committee “Decision concerning Safeguarding Internet Security”, the State Council “Internet Information Service Management Rules”, etc., which have had a positive effect on stimulating the healthy development of information networks. Although the criminal law contains provisions concerning criminal defamation, criminal provocation, criminal extortion and blackmail and criminal illegal business, it does not contain special provisions on the use of information networks and especially the Internet to commit defamation and other such crimes, because of this, the problem that applicable law is insufficiently clear exists in practice. In this regard, the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate have taken a year of deep investigation, research, and broad solicitation of opinion from all sides, and learned from the management experiences of other countries concerning information networks, and after repeated research and revision, published this “Interpretation”.

The “Interpretation” has ten articles in total, which are aimed at the characteristics of the present use of information networks to commit criminal defamation, provocation, extortion, blackmail and illegal business, in integration with the real situation of judicial practice, they provide for issues such as the act of “concocting facts to defame others” when using information networks to commit defamation, the criminal standards for “grave circumstances” as well as the conditions for prosecutorial procedures when matters “gravely harm social order and national interests”; they provide that using information networks to insult or threaten others, or concoct false information and spreading it on information networks, constitutes criminal provocation; they provide for questions of establishing the use of information networks for extortion, blackmail and illegal business. The “Interpretation” is helpful in unifying judicial standards and standardizing judicial acts, and has an important significance in attacking the use of information networks to commit defamation and other such crimes according to the law, protecting citizens’ lawful rights and interests, safeguarding social order, and standardizing the information network order.

Q: Some people believe that cyberspace is a virtual space, and that online discourse cannot create direct harm to the real society. How should this viewpoint be regarded?

A: This sort of viewpoint is incorrect. First, cyberspace is not a “virtual space”. Cyberspace has virtuality under some circumstances, such as the characters of real-life people “killing” their opponent characters in some online games, this sort of acts does not bring harm to real society, and it is not necessary to bear criminal liability for the crime of wilful killing, the social public also knows that “this is false”, such a cyberspace has a certain virtuality.

Bit the essential characteristic of cyberspace is not this sort of “virtuality”, but it is “instrumentality” and “publicity”. In the present society, the social masses more often obtain information, buy goods, interact, communicate and engage in public opinion supervision through this public platform of information networks, this has caused cyberspace to have a correspondingly clear public quality and social quality. The online society is an important component part of the real society, and has melded into one with real society, becoming inseparable; the online public space is a real public space. For example, in reality, everyone likes shopping online, they can stay at home and complete acts such as entering stores, selecting products, conclude contracts, paying, etc., which is convenient and quick. These actions are all completed online, and are “most assuredly” acts of buying and selling products, both sides of the deal are bound by the sales contract, and bear statutory rights and obligations. This sort of contractual relationship is clearly protected by the law, and regulated by the law.

On the basis of the above-mentioned “instrumentality” and “publicity” of cyberspace, online information will inevitably generate a direct and real influence on society. Concocting facts that defame other persons’ reputations, and using information networks as a tool and platform to spread defaming information will directly violate the victim’s right to reputation; using methods of dealing with information online networks such as dissemination on or deletion from information networks to threaten and blackmail other persons, demanding public or private property, will directly violate the victim’s property rights; concocting false information and spreading it on information networks to stir up trouble will bring grave harm to public order, etc. In fact, the use of information to commit defamation and other such crimes is only a new form of manifestation of defamation and other traditional crimes in the network era, it has the same social harm as traditional defamation and other such crimes, and in view of the rapid dissemination and broad audience of network information, the social harm that is caused may be even created. To this end, this should be convicted and punished according to the relevant provisions of the Criminal Law.

Governing the network according to the law and attacking the use of the network to commit defamation and other such crimes is not only what the people desire, it is also a global tendency in the area of criminal justice. The network is not an “area outside of the law” in any country; the US, the UK, Korea and other countries have published special laws to strengthen regulation over information networks. The publication of the “Interpretation” benefits the rectification of information network order, stimulates corresponding organs to strengthen management over information networks, and to perfect prevention mechanisms against legal violations and crime online. At the same time, the “Interpretation” can give rein to the positive function of punitive measures in the area of prevention, education, etc., guide the broad netizens to consciously standardize their online words and deeds, and ensure the good social results of “attacking the absolute minority, and educating the absolute majority”.

Q: As the “Interpretation” punishes the use of information networks to commit defamation and other such crimes according to the law, how is this reflected in legal protection for citizens’ lawful rights and interests?

A: Some cases of defamation, extortion, blackmail and other such crimes committed on information networks harm citizens’ right to reputation, some harm citizens’ property rights. Online acts of fabricating and disseminating rumours also lead to difficulties in differentiating the truth or falsity of information in cyberspace, which obstructs netizens’ obtaining true information from information networks. The “Interpretation” has persisted in the principle of integrating punishing crime and protecting citizens’ lawful rights and interests, and upholds justice for victims through punishing the use of information networks to commit defamation, extortion, blackmail and other such crimes according to the law, it resorts reputations and protects citizens’ property rights from infringement. At the same time, it has also created a standardized, orderly and healthy network environment for the broad popular masses.

Looking from the angle of safeguarding social and public order, online order is the extension of real public order, squarely looking up to the social harm created by online crime, and controlling online acts through rule of law thinking and rule of law methods, is a real need to safeguard online order. The “Interpretation” has complied with the universal expectations and urgent demands of the popular masses concerning punishing information network crime according to the law, and standardizing information network order, it has tightened the net of the criminal law, it attacks this sort of criminal activity according to the law, which benefits safeguarding social public order and creating a desirable social influence for the broad popular masses.

A: Information networks are important platforms for the public to reflect opinions and suggestions. How does the “Interpretation” reflect this with regards to the legal protection for the freedom of speech?

A: One point must be made clear first, online defamation cannot be confused with free speech. At present, information networks have become an important platform for public interaction. Free speech is a basic right of citizens provided in our country’s constitution, the broad popular masses’ expressing the popular will, paying attention to social hot sports and incidents, and conducting public opinion supervision through online posting are important methods by which citizens exercise their right of free speech and participate in national political life. Citizens’ expressing discourse on information according to the law and exercising the rights endowed by the Constitution, are protected by the laws of our country. The Party and the government are able to understand social situations, the emotions of the masses and netizens’ opinions and suggestions concerning public affairs through all sorts of information and debates online.

But discourse on information networks is not without boundaries. At the same time that citizens exercise their right of expression, they cannot touch the bottom line that the law has instituted with regards to free speech. “Free speech” does not mean “free rumours”, free speech on information networks is not without borders. No country’s laws will permit “free speech” that defames other persons. A freedom that is not limited will lead to chaos due to a lack of rules, and the end result will be that a good free speech order will be challenged and even destroyed, that public platforms on which citizens express opinions, advice and suggestions become places with a pestilent atmosphere where others are attacked, abused and slandered.

After the “Interpretation” was published, there was a sort of voice that believed that the publication of the “Interpretation” was intended to suppress the space for online free speech, and was even intended to attack or retaliate against critics or people raising suggestions, this sort of understanding is incorrect. For example, in the “Criminal Law Revision Draft (8)”, it is provided that drink-driving must be “criminalized”, the objective for this was not to limit everyone driving cars onto the roads, but was intended to limit specific individuals to drive cars onto the road in a dangerous manner, thus safeguarding traffic order and safety, and thereby protecting the majority of the people to drive cars onto the roads in an even safer manner. As a similar rationale, the “Interpretation” persists in the principle of statutory punishment and strict criminal standards, and will not deal with those who disseminate false information online without knowing the truth, and with acts of expressing extreme or even inaccurate critical opinions on the internet, in a criminal manner. Therefore, the publication of the “Interpretation” cannot be intended to “control” online discourse, but is intended to protect the broad citizens’ right to expression and to realize free speech in the true sense of the term.

The “Interpretation” has provided clear boundaries concerning the ways of action in using information networks to commit criminal defamation, it has provided concrete and clear legal bases for attacking this sort of criminal activity according to the law. At the same time, it has also clarified the legal boundaries of expression and speech on information networks, to make it clear to people which speech can be expressed and which speech infringes the law, it thereby guarantees that the broad popular masses can fully exercise the right of expression and the right of supervision endowed to them by the Constitution, according to the law, and it protects the freedom of speech of the broad popular masses to the largest extent.

Q: At present, “online anti-corruption” has become an important channel of public opinion supervision. How does the “Interpretation” differentiate between online anti-corruption and criminal defamation?

A: At present, the broad netizens use information networks to conduct “online anti-corruption” and “Weibo anti-corruption”, which has had a positive effect in anti-corruption and pro-honesty work. Some corruption cases have been brought to light first on networks, they have attracted the high attention of the relevant departments and have been timely dealt with afterwards. We attack online crime, but cannot give up at the slightest obstacle or smother the vitality of the network, we can certainly not block communication paths and suppress critical voices, this sort of worry is unnecessary.

With regards to the broad popular masses reporting or exposing other persons’ unlawful or undisciplinary acts through information networks, relevant departments shall deal with this earnestly, verify them responsibly, and timely publish the investigation results. Even if a part of the reported or exposed content is inaccurate, as long as there is no wilful concoction of facts to defame others, or where it does not fall into the category of clearly knowing that facts are concocted to defame others, and disseminating them on information networks, they should not pursue criminal liability for defamation. But against those acts of wilful concoction of facts to defame others under the pretence of “online anti-corruption”, and especially organized activities of defaming others on a large scale, it is necessary to firmly pursue criminal liability according to the law.

At the same time that judicial organs attack online rumours, clean up the online space and transmit positive energy, they must strictly grasp the boundaries of laws and policies. They must both attack unlawful and criminal activities of using reporting to commit defamation, and must prevent that accidental injury occurs to those informers who vigorously conduct public opinion supervision and who do not have the intent to defame, especially reports where a part of the reported content is inaccurate. Thereby, they must guarantee the organic unity of attacking criminal defamation and guaranteeing citizens’ exercise of the right to supervision, and guarantee that every case can stand the test of the law and history.

网络空间应有法律规则 公民权益必须依法保护
——访最高人民法院审判委员会专职委员高憬宏
2013年9月9日,最高人民法院、最高人民检察院联合发布《关于办理利用信息网络实施诽谤等刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释》(以下简称《解释》),明确了网络空间属于公共空间,网络秩序是社会公共秩序的重要组成部分,界定了网络诽谤等行为罪与罚的标尺,统一了司法机关办理相关刑事案件的标准,同时让人们认识到网络空间依法守规,公民权利才有保障。《解释》一出台,社会各界广泛关注、热烈回应。本刊记者专访最高人民法院审判委员会专职委员高憬宏,请他解读有关热点问题。
问:制定和实施这一《解释》,是我国向网络法治化迈出的重要一步。请您介绍一下其背景、主要内容及重要意义。
答:随着信息技术的快速发展,以互联网为主体、包括通信网、广播电视传输覆盖网在内的信息网络日益普及,呈现出“三网合一”的趋势,不仅促进了经济社会发展,也极大地方便了人们的工作和生活,同时推动了人民群众依法积极行使表达权和监督权。也要看到,一些不法分子将信息网络作为一种新的犯罪平台,肆意实施诽谤、寻衅滋事、敲诈勒索、非法经营等犯罪,犯罪手段网络化,非法牟利特征突出,组织链条明显,侵犯了公民的名誉权、财产权等合法权益,扰乱了公共秩序和市场秩序。广大人民群众对此反映特别强烈,有依法惩治的现实必要。
近年来,国家为加强信息网络管理,规范信息网络秩序,相继出台了一系列法律法规,如全国人大常委会《关于维护互联网安全的决定》、国务院《互联网信息服务管理办法》等,对促进信息网络健康发展起到了积极作用。虽然刑法对诽谤罪、寻衅滋事罪、敲诈勒索罪、非法经营罪作出了规定,但对于利用信息网络特别是互联网实施的诽谤等犯罪,没有专门规定,因此实践中存在着法律适用不够明确的问题。为此,最高人民法院、最高人民检察院经过为期一年的深入调研,广泛征求各方面意见,并借鉴其他国家关于信息网络的管理经验,经反复研究和修改,出台了这一《解释》。
《解释》共十条,针对当前利用信息网络实施的诽谤、寻衅滋事、敲诈勒索、非法经营犯罪的特点,结合司法实践中的实际情况,规定了利用信息网络实施诽谤犯罪所涉及的“捏造事实诽谤他人”的行为方式、“情节严重”的入罪标准,以及“严重危害社会秩序和国家利益”时适用公诉程序的条件等问题;规定了利用信息网络辱骂、恐吓他人,或者编造虚假信息并在信息网络上散布,构成寻衅滋事罪的问题;规定了利用信息网络实施敲诈勒索、非法经营犯罪的认定问题。《解释》有助于统一司法标准,规范司法行为,对于依法打击利用信息网络实施的诽谤等犯罪,保护公民合法权益,维护社会秩序,规范信息网络秩序,具有重要意义。
问:有人认为,网络空间是虚拟空间,网络言论不会对现实社会造成直接的危害。应当如何看待这种观点?
答:这种观点是不正确的。首先,网络空间不是“虚拟空间”。网络空间在某些情况下具有虚拟性,比如在一些网络游戏中,现实生活中的人扮演的角色“杀死”对方所扮演的角色,这种行为不具有现实社会危害性,也不需要承担故意杀人罪的刑事责任,社会公众也都知道“这是假的”,这样的网络空间具有一定的虚拟性。
但网络空间的本质特征不是这种“虚拟性”,而是“工具性”和“公共性”。当今社会,人民群众更多的是通过信息网络这一公共平台获取资讯、购买商品、交流沟通、进行舆论监督,这就使得网络空间具备了相当明显的公共属性和社会属性。网络社会是现实社会的重要组成部分,并且已经与现实社会融为一体、不可分割,网络公共空间是现实的公共空间。举例而言,现在大家都喜欢网上购物,足不出户就可以通过网络完成进入商户、挑选商品、订立合同、支付货款等行为,方便快捷。这些行为都是在网络上完成的,是“实打实”的商品买卖行为,交易双方都在买卖合同约束之下,负有法定权利和义务。这种合同关系显然受到法律的保护,也为法律所规制。
基于上述网络空间的“工具性”和“公共性”,网络上的信息就必然会对社会产生直接的、现实的影响。捏造诽谤他人名誉的事实,并利用信息网络作为散布诽谤信息的工具和平台,就会直接侵害被害人的名誉权;以在信息网络上发布、删除等方式处理网络信息为由,威胁、要挟他人,索取公私财物,就会直接侵犯被害人的财产权;编造虚假信息并在信息网络上散布,起哄闹事,就会造成公共秩序的严重混乱,等等。实际上,利用信息网络实施的诽谤等犯罪,只是诽谤等传统犯罪在网络时代的新型表现形式,与传统的诽谤等犯罪一样具有社会危害性,而且基于网络信息传播迅捷、受众广泛等特点,所造成的社会危害性可能还更大。对此,应当依照刑法有关规定定罪处罚。
依法治理网络,打击利用信息网络实施的诽谤等犯罪,不仅是民心所向,也是刑事司法领域的世界性趋势。网络在哪个国家都不是“法外之地”,美国、英国、韩国等国均出台了专门的法律,加强对信息网络的规制。《解释》的出台,有助于整饬信息网络秩序,促进相关部门加强对信息网络的管理,完善网络违法犯罪防范机制。同时,《解释》能够发挥刑罚手段在预防、教育等方面的积极作用,引导广大网民自觉规范网络言行,达到“打击极少数,教育大多数”的良好社会效果。
问:《解释》在依法惩治利用信息网络实施的诽谤等犯罪的同时,如何体现对公民合法权益的法律保护?
答:在信息网络上实施的诽谤、敲诈勒索等犯罪,有的侵害了公民的名誉权,有的侵犯了公民的财产权。网络造谣、传谣行为,也导致网络空间上的信息真假难辨,妨碍了网民从信息网络上获取真实信息。《解释》坚持惩罚犯罪与保护公民合法权益相结合的原则,通过依法惩治利用信息网络实施的诽谤、敲诈勒索等犯罪,为受害者伸张正义,恢复名誉,保护公民财产权利不受侵犯。同时,也为广大人民群众创造一个规范、有序、健康的网络环境。
从维护社会公共秩序的角度来说,网络秩序是现实公共秩序的延伸,正视网络犯罪造成的社会危害,以法治思维和法治方式规制网络行为,是维护网络秩序的现实需要。《解释》顺应了新时期广大人民群众对依法惩治信息网络犯罪、规范信息网络秩序的普遍期待和迫切要求,严密了刑事法网,依法打击此类犯罪行为,有助于维护社会公共秩序,为广大人民群众创造良好的社会环境。
问:信息网络是公众反映意见建议的重要平台。《解释》如何体现对公民言论自由的法律保护?
答:首先需要明确一点,不能将网络诽谤与言论自由混为一谈。目前,信息网络已经成为公共交流的重要平台。言论自由是我国宪法规定的公民的一项基本权利,广大网民通过网络发帖表达民意、关注社会热点事件、进行舆论监督,是公民行使言论自由权利、参与国家政治生活的重要方式。公民依法在信息网络上发表言论,行使宪法赋予的权利,受我国法律的保护。党和政府通过网络上的各种信息和议论,能够了解社会情况、群众情绪和网民对公共事务的意见和建议。
但信息网络上的言论并非没有边界。公民在行使表达权的同时,不能触及法律为言论自由设定的底线。“言论自由”不是“造谣自由”,信息网络上的言论自由并非没有边界。任何一个国家的法律都不会允许有诽谤他人的“言论自由”。不受限制的自由必将导致规则缺失之下的无序,最终结果就是良好的言论自由秩序受到挑战甚至破坏,把公民表达思想、建言献策的公共平台,变成攻击谩骂、诋毁他人的乌烟瘴气场所。
《解释》出台后,有一种声音认为,出台《解释》是为了压缩网络言论自由的空间,甚至是为了打击报复批评者、建议者,这种认识是不对的。举例而言,《刑法修正案(八)》中规定了醉驾要“入刑”,目的不是为了限制大家开车上路,而是为了限制个别人以危险方法开车上路,维护交通秩序安全,从而保护大多数人更加安全地开车上路。同样道理,《解释》坚持罪刑法定原则,严格入罪标准,对于不明真相而在网络上转发虚假信息的,对于在网络上发表过激的乃至不正确批评意见的行为,均不会作为犯罪处理。所以,出台《解释》不是为了“管制”网络言论,而是为了保护广大公民的表达权,实现真正意义上的言论自由。
《解释》对利用信息网络实施诽谤犯罪的行为方式作出了明确界定,为依法打击此类犯罪行为提供了具体、明确的法律依据。同时也厘清了在信息网络上发表言论的法律边界,让人们清楚哪些言论可以发表,哪些言论触犯了法律,从而保证广大人民群众依法、充分行使宪法赋予的表达权和监督权,最大限度地保护了广大人民群众的言论自由。
问:“网络反腐”目前已经成为舆论监督的一个重要途径。《解释》如何区分网络反腐与诽谤犯罪之间的界限?
答:当前,广大网民利用信息网络进行“网络反腐”、“微博反腐”,对反腐倡廉工作发挥了积极的作用。一些腐败案件最先就是在网络上曝光,引起有关部门的高度重视,随后得到了及时的处理。我们打击网络犯罪,但不会因噎废食,扼杀网络活力,更不会阻塞言路,压制批评声音,这种担心是不必要的。
对于广大网民通过信息网络检举、揭发他人违法违纪行为的,有关部门应当认真对待,负责任地核实,及时公布调查结果。即使检举、揭发的部分内容失实,只要不是故意捏造事实诽谤他人的,或者不属明知是捏造损害他人名誉的事实而在信息网络上散布的,就不应以诽谤罪追究刑事责任。但是,对于那些打着“网络反腐”的幌子,故意捏造事实诽谤他人的行为,尤其是有组织地大肆诽谤他人的行为,就要坚决依法追究刑事责任。
司法机关在打击网络谣言,净化网络空间,传递正能量的同时,要严格把握法律和政策的界限。既要依法打击假借举报实施诽谤的违法犯罪活动,又要防止误伤那些积极进行舆论监督、并无诽谤目的的举报者,特别是部分举报内容不实的举报者。从而确保打击诽谤犯罪与保障公民行使监督权的有机统一,确保办理的每一件案件都经得起法律和历史的检验。

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