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Government to ban suicide-promoting websites

The Government will change the law to make it clear that promoting suicide on the internet is illegal. The Ministry of Justice said that it will rewrite the Suicide Act of 1961 which will make it easier for website hosts to remove offending material.18 Sep 2008

Advert: free OUT-LAW Breakfast Seminars - 1. Making your contract work: pitfalls and best practices; 2. Transferring data: the information security issuesThe Government has conducted a review of the Suicide Act and said that it wants to make it clear that activity which is illegal offline is also illegal online.

The Act currently says that it is an offence to "aid, abet, counsel or procure" a suicide, though courts have ruled in the past that the simple provision of information about committing suicide would not open a publisher to prosecution.

Concerns have been widely expressed about the use of the internet to disseminate information on how to commit suicide and even to encourage people to do it.

"There is no magic solution to protecting vulnerable people online," said justice minister Maria Eagle. "Updating the language of the Suicide Act, however, should help to reassure people that the internet is not a lawless environment and that we can meet the challenges of the digital world."

"It is important, particularly in an area of such wide public interest and concern, for the law to be expressed in terms that everyone can understand," she said.

The Government said that it will work with other groups to implement new laws.

"Later this year, the government will work with the UK Council on Child Internet Safety to consider the practicalities of restricting access to websites that are not in accordance with UK law and how enforcement mechanisms can and should be applied to online activity," said a Government statement.

Earlier this summer, Glasgow MP John Robertson called for internet content to be regulated to tackle the encouragement of suicide, amongst other things.

In a House of Commons debate begun by Robertson, Madeleine Moon, MP for Bridgend, described some suicide-related sites as "truly evil". Bridgend has been the location of a large number of recent suicides by young people.

"[The sites] not only encourage, urge, assist and facilitate people to take their lives, but distract especially youngsters from finding the help, advice and guidance that would enable them to live full and productive lives. We must find some way of monitoring and closing them," said Moon in the debate.

Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that web publishers should not wait for the law to change before taking steps to avoid comments on their sites that encourage suicide.

"I would recommend that publishers who moderate all comments on their forums or chat rooms should silence discussions that encourage suicide, and sites that rely on others to complain about material before they review it should take down such discussions if complaints are received," said Robertson.

Coverage of suicide in the media was under attack this week. Newspaper the Daily Sport was censured by the press regulator for an article on suicide that was "gratuitous" and "excessive" and broke its guidelines on the reporting of suicide.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) said that the Daily Sport breached its Code of Practice and glamourised suicide, opening up the possibility of a risk of imitation suicides.

The paper had published an article detailing 10 places which were frequent locations for suicides, after the British Transport Police published details of a stretch of railway that had been the location of 25 suicides in three years.

Called 'The top yourself 10', the piece referred to one location as a 'well-known favourite for Britain's top-yourself tourists' and pointed out explicitly to readers that there were a number of options of how and where to commit suicide.

The PCC said that the Daily Sport claimed that the article was "a fair and balanced factual report in the public interest, based on information in the public domain". It ruled, though, that the piece was "clearly excessive" and that "the light-hearted presentation of the piece … may have glamorised suicide in the eyes of some readers".

The ruling emphasised that responsible reporting of suicide and of details surrounding a suicide is permitted.