UK Government Pondering Changes To Searches On Suicides

I saw this come up on
Threadwatch and someone’s just posted to our SEW Forums about it, as well.

Clampdown on chatrooms after two strangers die in first internet death pact

at The Guardian looks at the UK government talking with search providers to see
if there’s a way to ensure those searching on things like "suicide" can get to
help to talk them out of the idea, rather than getting advice on how to commit

Out of curiosity, I tried searches on suicide on major UK search engines to
see what comes up. Aside from Ask Jeeves, no one’s getting "suicide advice" when
searching on that topic. Using the default settings at each place, I found:

  • Google
    : Nine of 10 listings all seem to be about suicide prevention, as
    best I can tell. The exception is for the SuicideGirls rock group.

  • Yahoo
    : Listings are mostly about suicide prevention or general information
    about suicide (like a Wikipedia entry) but nothing I’d say is advice on
    committing suicide.
  • MSN:
    Mostly sites about suicide prevention, though the second listing is for
    archives of the alt.suicide.holidays group which doesn’t encourage suicide
    (the FAQ says) but believes people have a right to commit suicide and doesn’t
    try to prevent them from doing so.
  • Ask: A
    mixture of suicide prevention listings, general info but also two listings
    specifically about killing yourself: "A Practical Guide To Suicide" and
    "Easiest and Painless Suicide."

Overall, it’s always a tricky issue of what a search engine should do with
intervention with its results. You simply can’t filter out all the sites that
might discuss taking your life, at least not by keyword, as there are so many
different ways people might search for that information. People can also have
very different views on what prevention should be required. I don’t think anyone
wants depressed teenagers to easily learn how to kill themselves. But someone
with a painful terminal illness? Perceptions can change with that.

If results can’t be filtered, certainly the search engines can look at ways
to perhaps provide free ad space to those who specialize in suicide prevention
or yes, perhaps ensure that some well respected suicide prevention groups are
hand selected to do well for key queries in addition to algorithmic picks.

FYI, back in May 2003, Wired had an
dealing with this exact situation at Google, where a Google engineer watching
queries hoped people were getting help:

Santa Clara, Calif. > What to tell a suicidal friend

This query hasn’t come from Kuala Lumpur or Genoa or Montevideo, but just
outside Google’s front door. A drama is unfolding only a few miles away, and
there is no way to help; I don’t even know the person’s name. I can only sit
and watch the words crawl up the screen and disappear. This is a contract
between man and machine, and I can only observe, not intervene.

Stricken, I glance over at Rae, who has returned from night league
volleyball, his spiky blond hair still wet. He, too, has seen the query and is
typing away furiously. Finally he stops and looks up at me. "They’re going to
be OK. They got referred to the right places."

"You can do that?"

"Yeah, well, I can see how the system responds. And if it doesn’t give the
right information, I’ll find better sites and attach them for future queries."

Sounds like Google doing exactly what I’m talking about, right, hand
manipulation of its results that it says it does NOT do. I did follow up on this
with Google, as I reported within

By the way, I asked Google previously about the reference in a Wired
article about wanting to "attach" better sites to queries to ensure it had
good information available. I remember being disturbed by this, just as some
in the aforementioned thread were, as it indeed suggested that Google was
doing hand-ranking in some cases.

I was told by Google that this was a misinterpretation on the part of
Wired. The Google engineer apparently meant that the Google search algorithm
would be tweaked to produce better results, not that the results would be
reordered by hand.

So no hand changes, at the moment.

Want to comment or discuss? Visit our forum thread,

Will Google Censor Suicide Searches?

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