Why the police’s hands are tied when it comes to harmful websites

Law offers little protection against webpages encouraging self-harm or anorexia

Natalia Junquera
There are currently around 400 sites in Spanish that encourage anorexia and bulimia.
There are currently around 400 sites in Spanish that encourage anorexia and bulimia.santi burgos

If you are 1.60 meters tall you should weigh 44 kilograms; if you are 1.70 meters then your weight should be 48kg, and so on – at least according to an ideal weight table on one of the many websites promoting anorexia and bulimia.

These sites also provide young women, most of them minors, with advice on how to overcome hunger (“punch yourself in the stomach”, “chew ice”) and how to fool their parents (“when you’re going to vomit, turn on the shower or put loud music on so they can’t hear you”)

In most cases, we can’t do anything. Those responsible cite free speech legislation”

Silvia Barrera, of the Spanish National Police’s Technology Investigation Unit, says there are days when she and her colleagues receive up to 400 alerts about sites with potentially harmful content and calls for them to be taken down.

“But in most cases, we can’t do anything. They are not committing a crime, and those responsible simply cite free speech legislation,” she explains.

Besides the pages organizing weight-loss competitions – not eating anything earns participants 800 points – the internet also hosts sites that say things like: “Women are animals, superior to other species, but not much different to a pet,” along with photographs of bruised young women with a hashtag saying: “Women need to be beaten.”

Other sites show users how to commit suicide or to self-harm. There are pages out there with photographs of corpses, tortured animals, or cruel tricks played on disabled people, all presented as “dark humor.”

Internet and the Penal Code


Spain's latest revision to its Penal Code, approved by Congress on July 31, introduces a number of changes specifically aimed at tackling potentially harmful internet content.

Article 510, for example, refers to tougher sanctions for people using the internet to, “harm the dignity of persons through acts that involve humiliation, disrespect, or bringing them into disrepute […] because of racism, antisemitism or other references to ideology, religion or beliefs, belonging to a particular ethnic group, race, or nation, their national origin, gender, or sexual orientation or identity, for reasons of gender or disability, when for this reason a climate of violence, hostility, hate, or discrimination is promoted or favored.”

The majority of complaints about internet content come from groups representing women, the disabled, or victims of crime and terrorism. But the police say that as soon as they close down one site, another one is opened almost immediately with similar content.

The police’s hands are tied in most cases: either it is hard to prove that a crime has been committed, as in the case of the pro-suicide sites, or else it is impossible to trace the authors.

“There are more and more of them, and they know what they are doing. They use anonymous connections, they hide in servers located in places like Iran. Try sending a court injunction there. We can’t control it,” says Barrera.

Yet occasionally the police are able to do something.

“There was a webpage with photographs of the mutilated bodies of the victims of the 2004 Atocha train bombings,” recalls Barrera. “We investigated and discovered that the person who uploaded them worked as an ambulance driver. We were able to locate him when he published photographs of the victims of a traffic accident on the same website, and it turned out the same ambulance had been at both places. We searched his house and found the photos. As a result, he faced criminal charges and lost his job. He hadn’t done it for the money, simply for the thrill.”

In March, Facebook established its own publishing guidelines after it emerged that while the social networking site would not allow images of mothers breastfeeding their children, it had permitted a user to post photographs of naked women who had been beaten by their partners. The new rules simply ban any nudity other than breastfeeding or mastectomy scars.

It took several months of sustained protests for Facebook to finally close a page featuring dog fights, and to then include animals among a clause forbidding “the promotion of activities that incur physical damage to people or businesses.”

When there was a car accident, people used to stop to see if they could help, but now many are simply taking photographs of the victim with their smartphone”

Silvia Barrera, National Police Technology Investigation Unit

The Change.org platform says it has sent Facebook more than 616,000 signatures from different countries asking for all pages featuring animal cruelty to be taken down. But there are still several pages featuring cock fights.

Besides animal protection, Change.org has also been used to organize several campaigns to close  sites encouraging young women to lose weight. Lidia Amella, whose 15-year-old daughter is being treated for anorexia, is still waiting for those sites to be shut down.

“When I saw them I was horrified. They tell girls to self-harm if they eat, they say things like ‘better dead than fat’…,” she says. “It’s illegal to download music, but not to put the lives of our children at risk.”

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Inspector Barrera says that in 2007, at the request of a public prosecutor, she compiled a report on the number of websites and chat rooms that encouraged anorexia and bulimia. “I found around 400 in Spanish. There are still around that number, and many of them have comments from girls as young as 12 explaining how to throw up without your parents finding out.”

Google says that it will not provide information about “individual cases”. Like Twitter, neither will it say how many requests it receives to remove potentially harmful content, only that it has a specially dedicated team working “24/7” to look into such problems. But It won’t reveal how many people are on the team, or what kind of training they have.

Barrera admits that the authorities’ hands are tied in most cases, due to freedom of expression legislation. She also warns that people are being desensitized by exposure to images of suffering.

“When there was a car accident, people used to stop to see if they could help, but now many are simply taking photographs of the victim with their smartphone.”

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