A Spanish website that appears to promote anorexia as a voluntary lifestyle choice is being targeted by health authorities in Madrid.

The Great Ana Competition awards points to readers on the basis of how little they eat in a given period, with bonuses added for activities that stave off hunger, such as drinking water, taking diet pills and exercising.

Doctors have warned that the diet apparently endorsed by the website is liable to cause malnutrition, and Madrid's regional government has asked a judge to determine whether the owners are criminally liable for the content.

It should be noted that the site includes a warning that the information it contains "should not be followed", but that seems unlikely to save it from litigation.

Pro-anorexia sites are bizarrely common on the internet, and it is a positive step if some of the peddlers of dangerous nonsense in the guise of medical advice can be held accountable for their actions. Yet the case raises the question of how much we are willing to tolerate for the sake of free speech – and the case is more complicated that it first appears.

Many websites promote unhealthy, antisocial or even dangerous lifestyles – from fast food and cigarette companies' home pages to sites extolling extreme sports and the more demanding sexual fetishes – but we shake our heads and accept that adults are able to make their own decisions. The problem with the pro-anorexia websites is that their target audience is quite specifically a vulnerable and teenaged one – yet the page under discussion warns under-18s not to enter. The warning is a disingenous one, certainly, given the subject matter and cartoonish design of the site, but it is still as thorough an attempt to keep out the underaged as is made by most pornography sites. Would a more effective age-restriction mechanism be enough to prevent legal action?

Of course, it is also worth pointing out that if disaffected teenagers are searching the web for advice on starving themselves, a problem already exists – one that will not be solved by litigation.

No one will mourn The Great Ana Competition, however, and lives may be saved as a result of Madrid's actions, so this is not the time to carp. The site was not functioning at time of writing, and the case continues.

[Via The Times]