Proposed British Law Would Monitor, Block Suicide Websites

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 16 2012 5:53 PM

Proposed British Law Would Monitor, Block Suicide Websites

Authorities often lobby for increased online surveillance to help detect and prevent serious crime and terrorism. But a bill recently introduced in the British Parliament would establish a new, unprecedented kind of targeted Internet monitoring to detect people searching for terms related to suicide.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

The Suicide (Prevention) Bill is the brainchild of William McCrea, a Northern Irish politician who represents the center-right Democratic Unionist Party. In his speech introducing the bill to Parliament late last month, McCrea explained that he wanted to raise awareness about the problem of suicide and increase discussion about this often taboo subject—particularly in light of alarming suicide rates across Europe linked to the economic crisis.


But McCrea doesn’t just hope to raise awareness. He wants the government to “work with Internet providers and others to reduce access to information on the Internet and through other sources on methods of suicide and to develop a system of alerts and blocks for Internet searches relating to suicide; and for connected purposes.”

Further, he proposes, “A gatekeeper or guardian should be in place to monitor websites, and they should have the power to forward information to the appropriate authority with a view to having the website closed down.”

Some studies have previously suggested monitoring Google search trends for spikes in searches related to suicide. This anonymized information could be used to provide a kind of early warning system, detecting potential spikes in suicide within a geographic region. McCrea’s measure goes much further by advocating real-time surveillance and censorship to target and block specific searches and websites as they are being accessed by single users.

To be properly enforced, it would require Internet service providers to monitor Web traffic, presumably using deep packet inspection, with banned websites and suicide-related searches automatically triggering alerts. (Already in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and elsewhere, a search for “suicide” on Google brings up the number of a 24-hour helpline at the top of the results page alongside the question, “Need help?”)

McCrea’s proposed reform, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, is ethically and practically complicated. It undermines the fundamental principle of Internet freedom—and in the process opens a huge can of worms. If we want to block websites and monitor searches that relate to suicide, then why not do the same for websites and searches about bomb-making, murder, fraud, and illicit drugs? Once you begin to shackle the Internet in this way, you are on a slippery slope.

Aside from the problem of curtailing Internet freedom, the logic of blocking information related to suicide is also questionable because it is rooted in an apparent desire to attack the symptom, not the cause. There is little doubt in some cases suicide pacts have been formed online, and some people certainly use information learned online to kill themselves. But the Internet itself is not the underlying factor. People commit suicide for myriad reasons—from job insecurity to genetics, depression and family history. Increasing censorship and surveillance would do little to address these issues and could in fact end up only further cutting off vulnerable individuals from a world in which they already feel isolated.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Naomi Klein Is Wrong

Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.

The Strange History of Wives Gazing at Their Husbands in Political Ads


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 1:38 PM Mad About Modi
 Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.

Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 12:42 PM How to Save Broken Mayonnaise
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.