Clampdown on chatrooms after two strangers die in first internet death pact
Internet companies are being urged by the Home Office to make so-called suicide websites and chatrooms more difficult to access. The move comes after two strangers forged Britain’s first internet suicide pact, dying side by side two days after making contact for the first time on a chatroom dedicated to discussions about suicide.
Following a spate of online suicide pacts in Japan and elsewhere, psychiatrists are warning that Britain may be about to witness a disturbing new trend, with young people in particular using the chatrooms to make contact with other depressed individuals.
Ministers have considered outlawing sites which appears to encourage suicide, but were warned that new legislation could also criminalise fictional depictions of suicide and hinder academics and counsellors writing about the subject.
Talks are taking place with a number of service providers, including Yahoo! and AOL, and search engine companies, in an attempt to reprioritise the results that are thrown up during a trawl on the internet. “When somebody keys in ‘suicide’ and ‘UK’, we would like them to be offered a link to the Samaritans long before they find a website showing them what they can do with a car exhaust and a hosepipe,” one official said.
The drive for internet reform was given extra impetus by the deaths of Christopher Aston and Maria Williams, who killed themselves in a shopping centre car park near the Millenium Dome in south-east London. They used a method which is highly unusual in the UK, but which is frequently discussed in suicide chatrooms.
Mr Aston, 25, was the elder of the two sons of a professional couple, and grew up in the street next to Penny Lane in Liverpool. A PhD student at the University of Manchester, he was researching the use of computers to analyse and categorise biological material.
Ms Williams, 42, was a former private detective and convicted fraudster who often used the name Marie Sanchez, and who lived alone on the sixth floor of a tower block on a council estate in Deptford, south-east London. All they had in common, before making contact on one of the most frequently-visited suicide chatrooms, was their interest in computers, and their history of depression.
The inquest into their deaths last month heard that Mr Aston was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and dyslexia as a child, with the result that he often felt isolated. “He had very good friends who cared for him but sometimes his perception of that was the opposite,” his mother, Frances, told the hearing. He drank a bottle of medicine at the age of 12 and took an overdose four years ago.
Ms Williams was an outgoing and resilient woman who descended unexpectedly into mental illness following her fourth short spell in prison 10 years ago, relatives say.
She had fallen in love with a prison officer and, following the failure of that relationship, drove to Wigan, the officer’s home town, where she attempted to commit suicide in a church.
A family member who did not wish to be identified said she had made two failed attempts to kill herself. “She said straight away that she was going to do it again.”
Mr Aston and Ms Williams were found together in her red BMW, parked outside a branch of the TK Maxx store, a place which her family say she liked because she had used “dodgy credit cards” to shop there. She was sitting behind the driver’s wheel, dressed in a white shroud with a friend’s name and telephone number scrawled on her right shoulder. Mr Aston was curled in a foetal position on the back seat. Beside him was a scanner, which could have been used to listen for the radio messages of approaching police patrols or ambulance crews.
They had had very little contact before their deaths, police told the inquest, but an examination of their computers showed how they had made contact, and revealed that both had been reading internet suicide websites.
The Guardian is not identifying the method which Mr Aston and Ms Williams used to take their lives, nor is it identifying the chatroom on which, relatives say, they first met.
This chatroom began life in the late 80s as a bulletin board discussion about the reasons for depression at Christmas. As the worldwide web was developed in the mid-90s, so too did the discussion, until it became a popular chatroom hosted by a leading search engine company.
Over the years, much of the dark humour which characterised the chatroom in the early days fell away, and it is now full of anonymous postings from people who want to express their despair, discuss different methods of taking their lives, and even advertise for suicide pact partners. One recent and typical posting read: “Hi, I’m new here. I am in the UK, near Liverpool to be precise. Is there anyone near me considering ending their life? Do you want to enter into an agreement to help each other? I have had a few unsuccessful attempts, panic always sets in …”
Another, in which a person wondered why they hadn’t died after taking a specified number of painkillers, received a reply explaining how to avoid vomiting.
As well as the chatroom, a website was developed which offered access to archived postings. One of the pioneers of this website was Peter Truman, a computer technician from Birmingham, who refuses to comment on his involvement.
At its inception, the website claimed to avoid anything to encourage suicide. However, it is understood to have been passed on to another host in Washington DC, who then handed it over to a man in California, who in turn passed it to its current host, Karin Spaink, a Dutch journalist. In its current guise, the website gives a direct link to the site of the suicide postings.
Ms Spaink argues that the website and chatroom do more good than harm. “I would rather have a place where people can discuss and investigate their anxiousness to commit suicide, rather than withdraw into an enclosed space where no other voices are heard,” she says. “I would rather people talked about it, so they can investigate whether they do indeed want to die.”
While acknowledging that some people have formed suicide pacts through this chatroom, Ms Spaink doubts whether many others will follow their lead.
In Japan, however, authorities have been alarmed by the number of people who have committed suicide after visiting suicide websites – 59 in the first four weeks of this year alone – and by the increasing number of internet pacts. In May, seven people, including a 14-year-old girl, killed themselves after striking an online agreement.
Writing in the British Medical Journal before the deaths of Mr Aston and Ms Williams, Sundararajan Rajagopal, a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital in London, warned that the internet could fuel a rise in such pacts.
He said the Japanese experience “might herald a new disturbing trend in suicide pacts, with more such incidents, involving strangers meeting over the internet, becoming increasingly common”.
The Home Office says it considered amending the 1961 Suicide Act, which prohibits the aiding and abetting of suicide, but which could rarely be used to prosecute people posting chatroom messages. Eventually, a spokesman says, ministers and officials concluded that “we can’t erase them from existence using legislation”.
This decision is dismissed as “a cop-out” by Papyrus, a charity set up by bereaved British parents to reduce suicide among young people. Papyrus points to a number of cases in the UK in which suicide notes have revealed clearly “the pivotal role” of information from the internet.
In Australia, the federal authorities have drawn up legislation which will impose heavy fines on individuals or companies involved in the online promotion of suicide.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the voices in defence of suicide chatrooms yesterday was that of a close relative of Ms Williams, who believes that parental control may be needed, but not legislation.
“The web is there as a source of information for all of us, and it’s better that these discussions aren’t driven underground,” he said. “Building high-rise blocks didn’t increase the suicide rate, and I don’t think the internet will either.”
The Samaritans can be contacted at www.samaritans.org.uk or by telephoning 08457 909090
FAQ Internet risks
Are suicide chatrooms breaking the law?
The 1961 Suicide Act made it a crime to aid, abet, counsel or procure another to kill themselves or to try. The Home Office says people making postings to suicide chatrooms are not breaking the law unless they know that a suicide is being planned, and there is a direct link between their posting and the subsequent death.
Can access to these websites and chatrooms be prevented?
Filtering is built into most browsers. Select tools on the browser menu, then select internet options, then content. More information can be found at www.parentscentre.gov.uk
How common are internet suicide pacts?
Such pacts have been reported in Japan, Australia, Norway, Korea and the United States. In Britain, two men planned to leap from Beachy Head after meeting on the internet three years ago. One killed himself and the second backed out. After posting details of the incident to a chatroom, he was arrested and charged with aiding and abetting suicide. He killed himself shortly before he was due to appear in court.
Can the internet influence whether anyone commits suicide?
Numerous studies have established close links between media reports of suicide and both subsequent increases in suicide rates, and the methods employed. Last year a group of child psychiatrists in Mannheim concluded, after studying adolescents who are predisposed to suicide, that the internet is little different to other media in this respect.