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The number of cases in which people solicit others on the Internet to commit group suicide is on the rise. To deal with this, a panel of learned people set up by the National Police Agency has called on Internet providers to disclose the names, addresses and birth dates of people sending such messages.

This information is necessary because people who give notice of suicide on the Internet cannot be protected unless they are identified. However, the police will be required to tighten procedures to prevent abuse, and the provider business as a whole, in order to protect human life, will have to be thoroughly prepared to disclose customer information as much as possible despite the obvious conflict with the principle of guarding the confidentiality of communications.

According to the NPA, the number of people committing suicide in Japan reached more than 34,000 the year before last, surpassing 30,000 for the six consecutive year. Last year there were 55 Internet suicides involving 19 cases. Although this number is very small compared with the total suicide toll, the phenomenon is peculiar in that complete strangers with different motivations are getting together over the Internet to plan their deaths together.

For this reason, it may be difficult even for the people closest to a troubled person to detect any signs of a suicide wish. The justification for having a bulletin board operator or provider furnish police with customer information is that the only lead to a potential suicide may be a message posted on an Internet bulletin board. There have been cases in which a person on the verge of death has been saved through the cooperation of a provider, but there have also been many cases in which providers have refused to give information.

Since suicide is not a crime, the police cannot issue a warrant of attachment; they can request only voluntary cooperation. Therefore, the panel proposes that a police station chief make the request for information not by telephone but in writing on an official form. The request would outline the case and clearly state why the information was required.

From the provider’s point of view, of course, external leakage of customer information is a violation of the obligation to maintain the confidentiality of communications and protect personal information. So the rationale used by the police in making the information request must be rigorous.

In the effort to prevent suicide under the system, the local police station should consult with the related department in the prefectural police headquarters to decide whether emergency shelter is needed. Furthermore, it will be necessary to strengthen the assignment of related police personnel at night when units tend to be shorthanded. Programs to bolster education and training of officials should also be strengthened.

About 12,000 Internet providers have registered with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. They vary from large telecom operators with their own communication lines to individual businesses. There are four business groups but no unified management association. The police panel’s proposals must be considered by the sector as a whole. Everyone, including small and medium-sized companies that are otherwise unaffiliated with any group, must be notified.

Overseas, there are various legal moves to enforce regulations in this area. In Australia, for example, a criminal code revision bill prohibiting speech over the Internet that might incite suicide has passed the House of Representatives and is currently being deliberated in the Senate. The bill, which is expected to be enacted, would fine corporate violators of the law up to 45 million yen.

In Japan, it would seem wiser to choose a path by which businesses voluntarily cooperate in preventing Internet-assisted suicide.

Police protection is important for treating the symptoms of someone contemplating suicide, but it is also important that the Internet community itself try to settle the problem of providing a venue for suicide. The number of Web sites that lend an ear to the stories and thoughts of people who are considering suicide must increase. Such people should be urged to spill out their true feelings. People having difficulty dealing with their worries might be encouraged, first of all, to connect to these sites and get advice.

Above all, we must try to ameliorate the factors that are isolating young people from their workplaces, families and schools and thus driving them to the Internet. In other words, we must promote the building of an environment that they can call home.

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