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.
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.