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Lawmakers call on tech firms to take threat of suicide site seriously, limit its visibility

The Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza on Thursday, October 28, 2021.
Julia Nikhinson

Congressional lawmakers are calling on technology companies to take the threat of websites that promote suicide seriously and limit their visibility after The New York Times published an investigation detailing how one such website allegedly contributed to the deaths of 45 individuals by suicide.

A bipartisan coalition of House lawmakers issued a statement on Monday announcing that it has requested briefings from search engines, web hosting companies, organizations that oversee content delivery networks and pertinent social media platforms “To better understand how this website is able to continue encouraging suicide.”

“It is imperative that companies take the threat of such sites seriously and take appropriate steps to mitigate harm,” the lawmakers added.

They also said they have asked for briefings from the Department Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Surgeon General to “discuss this growing crisis and efforts to provide support for Americans and counter harmful online content.”

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Bob Latta (R-Ohio), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) all signed the statement.

Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) led a bipartisan group of Congress members issuing a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Tuesday asking about options to take action on the site.

The letter led by Trahan sought to confirm what options the DOJ has for pursuing a case against the site. The members asked the DOJ a series of detailed questions about the authority the department has to investigate the website, additionally inquiring if the DOJ shares information about websites that promote suicide with state and local authorities. 

“While it is our understanding that there is no federal law criminalizing assisting or encouraging suicide, we write to do our due diligence and confirm the DOJ’s options for pursuing a case against the owners of this website,” the lawmakers wrote. 

The push from the lawmakers comes after the Times published an investigation earlier this month into a website called Sanctioned Suicide, which the reporters said “provides explicit directions on how to die.”

The newspaper identified 45 individuals in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and Australia from the website who have allegedly died by suicide. Members of the website remain anonymous, but the Times was reportedly able to determine 45 identities.

According to the newspaper, more than 500 members of the website penned “goodbye threads” detailing how and when they planned on dying by suicide. Those individuals did not post again on the website following those threads, according to the Times.

The lawmakers cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason why an increased focus on suicide is important.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing mental health crisis in America, especially among our nation’s young people,” the lawmakers wrote.

“During this challenging time, we are deeply concerned by recent reporting on a website that provides advice on methods of suicide and facilitates discussions encouraging people to take their lives,” they added.

They said they are “committed to taking further action to address the role of online content in the nation’s mental health emergency,” before emphasizing the importance of addressing mental health needs in the U.S.

“Meeting the country’s mental health needs and supporting investments in mental health education, prevention, care, and services for all Americans, and especially children and young people, is a priority for the Committee,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary data last month showing that the overall suicide rate in the U.S. had decreased in 2020, marking the second straight year that the number dropped.

HHS officials announced on Monday that the department will dedicate $280 million to transition the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to the three-digit phone number 988 in July of next year.

Rebecca Klar contributed.

— Updated at 11:44 a.m.

Tags Anna Eshoo Bob Latta Brett Guthrie Cathy McMorris Rodgers Department of Health and Human Services Diana DeGette Frank Pallone Gus Bilirakis Jan Schakowsky Lori Trahan Mike Doyle Morgan Griffith Suicide Suicide prevention tech companies

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