Government moves to reduce the availability of suicide sites on the internet may herald a new era of online censorship in the UK.
Last week, Justice Minister Maria Eagle announced a review of the law on suicide. Citing the usual suspect – "public concern" – she said: "Protecting vulnerable and young people must be a priority and a responsibility for us all.
"There is no magic solution to protecting vulnerable people online. 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.
"We continue to work with the internet industry to look at long-term ways to keep people safe and without jeopardising our freedom of speech."
Or in plain English: We are finally going to do something about people who have the temerity to use the internet to talk openly about this subject. "Freedom of speech" is optional.
In fairness, the government is not outwardly planning to change the law much - it is already illegal to "aid or abet" suicide – and they claim that proposed legislation will make it clearer that this applies to the internet as well.
Tightening the noose
So is this particular kite just another government announcement designed to suggest that it is doing something while carrying on as usual, or the start of something more insidious?
UK Government censorship of the internet has historically opted for the light touch. A number of bodies exist – from the BBFC to the Advertising Standards Association – that police content, but these are non-statutory bodies, set up by members of specific industries to regulate themselves. The one statutory body in the mix – Ofcom – has hitherto confined itself to broadcasting standards.
The body that looks most like an internet censor – the Internet Watch Foundation – is another non-statutory organisation, which has deliberately kept its remit very focused. Child porn, race hatred and criminally obscene material are the sum total of its interests, and as it told us last week, it is not interested in suicide - policing it, that is.
So if the government wished to ban or block suicide sites, it currently has no machinery to do so. The reason we should perhaps be more concerned than usual at this pronouncement is threefold:
First, it is the second such kite to be flown this year. Back in January, home secretary Jacqui Smith spoke of the need to ban or block websites that "groomed" young people for terror.
According to a Home Office spokesperson: "The government has been working with a number of internet companies to develop filtering software to ensure that their products provide a high level of protection against illegal material that promotes or encourages terrorism".
Not only is the question of just who the Home Office is talking to of interest - it is also questionable as to what exactly they are planning to block. Unlike material that may be classified as "obscene", there is no such classification for terror material.
According to the Terror Act 2006, whether something is "terrorist material" can only be determined by looking at the circumstances surrounding its distribution. This therefore suggests either that government is planning to block material that is not strictly illegal – or that its software is clever in the extreme, being able to read the mind of the individual sat in front of their pc.
The second straw in the wind is persistent rumours that government would like Ofcom to take on greater powers to police the internet. Despite official denials, Ofcom continues to express interest in some sort of role in this area.
This interest, in turn, is stoked up by the recent report of the Select Committee for Media, Culture and Sport, on Harmful Content on the Internet. When it came to discussing new ways to control content, one of the key submissions on which the committee focused was that from Ofcom. Recommendations from the Committee are expected to be published in early October, when Parliament returns from recess.
It is probable that the intention of government is no more than tightening up the law on suicide - its stated aim. However, in order to do so, it is going to get used to new habits of censorship. Given its track record, it may be that such habits, once acquired, will be very difficult to let go. ®