Suicide sites pose deadly problem

Members of pro-suicide websites say they are only advocating freedom of expression and choice, writes Amrita Singh

The Times of India
Sunday, March 16, 2008

By Amrita Singh

As sites and chatrooms providing step-by-step guidance on how to commit suicide proliferate, parents -- as well as governments -- have a new web worry. One with deadly consequences as the UK realized following a spate of teen suicides in the past month which police believe were prompted by messages on a social networking site. A few weeks ago, Delhi boy G N Vinay -- a class XII student and IIT aspirant -- hanged himself to death. Many believe his drastic step was prompted by discussions on an internet forum about life after death.

Sites like the ones accessed by these youngsters are readily accessible in India without any curb. From using cigarettes to rat poison to cyanide, these sites detail any number of ways of killing oneself. According to one estimate, there are over 100,000 such sites on suicide, many of them actively promoting suicide or glorifying death.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly how many suicides have been prompted by such sites as most members log in as 'anonymous' or have a screen name. But experts say the ready availability of this information on such sites could be one reason for the recent surge in suicides in Bangalore, where internet access is quite high. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 1,470 suicides in Bangalore in 2005 and the figure went up by 36.6% to 2,008 in 2006, which is the highest in the country.

Members of these sites, however, argue they are only being "pro-choice" and promoting freedom of expression. The forum that Vinay was a member of now has a debate going on whether the site was responsible for his death. The majority opinion is that it had no role to play in his decision. "It's entirely a free choice... who wants to die and who wants to live," says a member. However, another member whose screen name is High Flier believes Vinay was depressed and should not have been a member of the site.

But how do you stop someone from accessing information on the Net? Worldwide, cyber laws are being made stricter. In the UK, sites that encourage suicide and discussion about taking your own life have become part of an official review on child safety on the web. In Australia, providing any information online on suicide is punishable by a heavy fine. In Korea and Japan too steps have been taken to block these sites. However in India, not much has been done yet.

"While pornography is covered by cyber law, pro-suicide websites are left out of its gambit allowing completely illegal activity to go on in the virtual world," says Kavir Raj Singh, cyber law expert with Trustman and Co.

Gulshan Rai, director, Computer Emergency Response Team, a body that looks after internet security issues in India, points out, "It's for the government to decide to ban such sites or put a cyber watch team in place. But even then, it would be difficult to block them because they may be hosted by a server outside the country."