- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2001

VIENNA, Austria A double suicide in an Austrian forest has increased concerns over the apparently proliferating cyberworld of suicide Web sites offering tips on how to do oneself in and the opportunity to meet likeminded people.
With names like "suicide forum" or "Thisbes self-destruction site" named for the mythological Babylonian woman who took her life to join her forbidden lover, Pyramus, in death these sites are "in," and are offering those looking for it straightforward advice on how to get "out."
From pills to the plunge, members are given matter-of-fact information about the effectiveness of particular methods. In chat rooms, they can discuss the deed and even look for someone prepared to join them in executing it.
Personal tragedy meets technology in tales of Internet suicides, bringing together despairing people who would not usually meet.
A 19-year-old Austrian boy and a German in his 50s who had met on the Internet were found dead in a car in an Austrian forest two weeks ago, having shot each other. A young Austrian girl and a Norwegian boy plunged 2,000 feet from Norways Prekestolen cliff last year after she responded to his request for a suicide partner posted in a chatroom.
In Japan, a middle-aged dentist with health problems and a 25-year-old woman were found dead from a pill overdose following their meeting through a suicide message board.
Even in the Netherlands, where euthanasia, or mercy killing, was legalized this month, the existence of a Dutch Web site where users look for suicide partners has liberal politicians demanding greater regulation of the Web.
"Its a worrying phenomenon. While its pretty much impossible to know the extent to which suicides are related to these Internet sites, without a doubt they pose a threat, particularly to those who are easily influenced," said David Kerr, director of the pro-regulation Internet Watch Foundation.
The authorities are clamping down.
In South Korea, the governments Center for Internet Crimes has started investigating sites after a number of deaths were linked to the use of suicide Web sites. Those who run these sites "violate social disciplines," the prime minister said.
While the legal complexities surrounding the Internet vary from country to country, an Internet service provider can be told to close an "offensive" site, a loophole that has those who want a free World Wide Web uneasy.
In Austria, five suicide site-related deaths in the past year have left state authorities with no qualms about logging into chat rooms to track down the despairing.
"We try and find out whos involved after weve had a tip-off or have picked something up on our own," said Bernhard Otupal, the Internet expert of the Austrian Interior Ministry.
While killing oneself is not a crime in Austria, assisting a suicide is.
"It would be difficult to prosecute these sites under this law. But it is not impossible," Mr. Otupal said.
Anti-censorship groups say such moves have grave implications for privacy, freedom of speech and peoples right to access information. And blaming the Internet can obscure the reasons why people take their lives.
"Suicide is obviously a tragic occurrence. But it says much more about society than it does about the Internet," said Helene Guldberg of spiked-online, a site that argues for freedom of expression on the Web.
"The decision to end your life is a big one, and its unlikely this is going to be made in a chat room. Its a very simplistic, and indeed negative, view of what people are like," Miss Guldberg said. The suicide sites themselves argue that they exist to offer people informed choice.
"There is no evidence that open discussion of suicide increases the risk of suicide. But it is often difficult to talk openly about suicide in a culture that regards suicide as a taboo," wrote one group on its home page. "What we are promoting is merely the right to choose to commit suicide."
Even active opponents of suicide concede that it is not clear whether the Internet has persuaded people to end their lives.
"We have no evidence to suggest that there are more suicides as a result of these sites," Mr. Otupal said.
Mr. Kerr of the Internet Watch Foundation also agreed that society had a growing tendency to blame its problems on something that, in essence, is simply a new form of communication.
"You cant blame the Internet for everything. Or in some senses, for anything."

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