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Lawmakers Urge Tech Companies to ‘Mitigate the Damage’ of Suicide Website

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) Attends a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington on Wednesday, October 20, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds / The New York Times)

Washington lawmakers urge tech companies to limit the visibility and reduce the risk of a website that provides step-by-step instructions on suicide and calls on the country’s top law enforcement official to consider conducting an investigation by the Ministry of Justice.

In response to a New York Times survey of the site published this month, the House Committee on Energy and Trade released a bipartisan statement on Monday requesting information from search engines, web hosting companies and other tech companies whose services could have been exploited by suicide. site.

“It is imperative that businesses take the threat of such sites seriously and take appropriate action to mitigate the damage,” said the statement from the panel, led by Representative Frank Pallone, DN.J.

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A representative for Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, told The Times last week that the company changed its search engine to lower the site’s ranking, which has been linked to a string of deaths. On Monday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sent a letter to Google and Bing asking companies to completely remove the suicide site from their search results – one step closer than either engine. no research was ready to be done.

On Tuesday, Representative Lori Trahan, D-Mass., Along with six other House members, wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland to ask what options the Department of Justice had for investigating the site and its founders and what action. lawmakers could take to allow a lawsuit. Noting that other countries had taken steps to restrict access to the site, lawmakers also called for it to be removed from search results in the United States.

Lawmakers said they were writing to “bring justice to the families of these victims.”

Justice Department officials did not immediately respond to The Times when contacted about the letter from lawmakers.

Members of the site are anonymous, but The Times has identified 45 people who spent time at the site and then committed suicide in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and Australia. Most of them were under 30, including several teenagers. The Times also found that more than 500 members of the site wrote farewell threads announcing how and when they were planning to end their lives, and then never posted again.

In recent days, law enforcement officials in Uruguay, where one of the two men who launched the site in 2018 lives, have opened an investigation into the website. The two men have resigned as directors. And the new admin has made the site private, which means the content – including discussions about suicide methods, supportive messages, and thumbs-up emojis to those who share plans to kill themselves, and even real-time messages written by members recounting their attempts – is now visible only to members and not to the public.

The families of those who have spent time on the website and learned ways to die have long demanded accountability from the tech companies that direct people to the site, including search engines. The site attracts 6 million pageviews per month, and nearly half of all traffic is generated by online searches, according to data from Similarweb, a web analytics company,

A Microsoft representative said that in response to The Times’ investigation, the company had “taken action in accordance with our policies” and “corrected the ranking associated with this website in our results,” which reduced the ranking of the site for most related research.

Citing reports from The Times, Blumenthal wrote in his letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai that the site’s content on suicide “makes the world a dark place for too many” and that Google has the ability and l ‘legal authority to direct’ the people who struggle to get away from this dangerous website.

“Google’s hands are not tied and it has a responsibility to act,” he wrote.

In an email to The Times, Google spokesperson Lara Levin declined to comment on the investigation or the senator’s letter.

Blumenthal made the same case in his letter to Microsoft, writing to company CEO Satya Nadella and chairman Brad Smith. The Microsoft representative declined to comment further.

The operators of the suicide site have long used Cloudflare, a US company that provides cyber protection, to hide the names of its host, making it difficult, if not impossible, to know which company provides these services.

In 2019, Cloudflare was briefed on the dangers of the suicide website by Australian government officials. The following year, parents whose children had died while participating in the site asked Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince to stop providing services to the site, but he did not respond. Cloudflare declined to respond to a request for comment for this article.

The two men who launched the site, using the online names Marquis and Serge, had attempted to hide their true identities. But using domain registration records and invoices, financial documents, other online activity, court records and interviews, the Times revealed that it was Lamarcus Small, 28, from Huntsville, Alabama; and Diego Joaquín Galante, 30, from Montevideo, Uruguay.

Small has denied any involvement with the site. Galante admitted in an email he posted on the site under Serge’s name but denied being one of the founders or the operator.

After the article was published on December 9, Marquis announced on the site that he was resigning as an administrator, permanently deleting his account, and handing over the operation of the site to someone using the online name RainAndSadness.

Small and Galante have also resigned as administrators of several websites they operated for unintentional singles, or incels, men who believe women will never have sex with them because of their looks and appearance. their social status.

In Uruguay, where assisted suicide is a crime, Montevideo police have opened an investigation together with a local prosecutor’s office in response to the Times investigation, said Javier Benech, the office’s communications director.

In the United States, while many states have laws against assisted suicide, they are often vague, do not explicitly address online activity, and are rarely enforced.

Members of the suicide site who post instructions on how to kill themselves, or encouragement to follow them, could be subject to criminal charges depending on the jurisdiction. But so far no U.S. law enforcement official has pursued such cases in connection with the website. Federal law generally protects website operators from liability for user posts.

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If you are having thoughts of suicide, in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/ressources for a list of additional resources.

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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