Australia to outlaw suicide Web sites

Goal is to prevent use of the Net to encourage "vulnerable individuals" to take their own lives. Fines could run as high as US$425,000.

Using the Internet to promote the idea or practical details of committing suicide is about to become illegal in Australia.

The new rules--introduced by the amendments to the national Criminal Code--will see infringements by individuals face a maximum penalty of up to nearly US$85,000 (110,000 Australian dollars). Corporations could be made to shell out nearly US$425,000 for an offense.

The legislation will come into effect six months after the governor-general signs them into law, which is likely to be in the next several weeks.

Although the legislation is broad enough to cover any transmission medium, its introductory memorandum highlights the Internet as the primary target.

"The proposed offenses are particularly...use of the Internet, e-mail and other online applications and are intended to cover the range of activities that a person can engage in when using these," it notes.

Minister for Justice Senator Chris Ellison said in a statement that the legislation would assist in preventing the use of the Internet to disseminate information that would encourage "vulnerable individuals" to take their own lives.

One organization that would likely be affected by the new laws is Exit International, the pro-euthanasia organization founded by Dr. Philip Nitschke. Exit currently hosts several items on its Web site dealing with the practicalities of committing euthanasia.

While a representative from Exit was not immediately available to comment on the new laws, Ellison was keen to make it clear the legislation would not target legitimate euthanasia campaigners.

"A person engaged in genuine debate over euthanasia-related law reform will not be restricted by these changes because such material would not 'counsel or incite' suicide, or promote or provide instruction on a particular method of committing suicide, as required by these offenses," he said in his statement.

Renai LeMay of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.

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