Legislative Theatre

Bruce Schneier has coined the term security theatre to mean measures that do not actually improve security, but which give the impression (particularly to uninformed people) that something is being done.

By analogy we can use the term legislative theatre to mean new laws that don’t actually improve anything, but merely exist to give the imression that something is being done, or that politicians “care” about a particular issue.

A good example is the government’s attempt to ban suicide websites:

The law on “suicide websites” is to be rewritten to ensure people know they are illegal, the government has said.

It follows concerns people searching for information on suicide are more likely to find sites encouraging the act than offering support. It is illegal under the 1961 Suicide Act to promote suicide, but no website operator has been prosecuted. The law will be amended to make clear it applies online and to help service providers police the sites they host.

Will this reduce the number of suicides? I think it won’t make any noticable difference, because:

1. Most websites, and therefore most suicide websites, are located outside the UK and won’t be affected by this proposal.

2. It may well be the case that some websites have the effect of making it more likely that someone will kill themself. There are also no doubt some websites that make it less likely that someone will suicide. I’m sure the government don’t know which is which, and I expect this legislation will reduce the number of the second type of website as wrell as the first.

3. Most people who kill themselves don’t do so because they read something on a website. Perhaps a few do, but in those cases threy will be people who are already severely depressed and the contents of the website are merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. The last straw is in any case not likely to be a website, it’s much more likely to be an act of  unfriendliness, unkindness or hostility towards thre suicidal person. Is the government going to ban people being unfriendly? Of course not, to do so would be totally impractical as well a a breach of civil liberties (not that the government give a fuck about liberty).

I the government really wanted to reduce the number of suicides, they would do research on what causes people to kill themselves, and attempt to alleiviate those causes. Doing so would be unglamourous, would be hard work, and probably wouldn’t get as many immediate headlines as a bid to ban websites. So it’s not surprising the government goes for the easy, but uneffective, solution.

This entry was posted in Britain, censorship, digital rights, politics, society. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Legislative Theatre

  1. Graham says:

    1. Not terribly relevant. Co-operation between governments and criminal justice systems would probably depend on it being illegal in at least one place and preferably both – legislation here would therefore be relevant.

    2. The government doesn’t need to know which is which. Courts can judge it on a case-by-case basis.

    3. An interesting assumption. I suspect that individual external events are less to do with suicide than you suggest. Validation by peers is a major part of most people’s behaviour.

    Whether it would make much difference remains to be seen, but I don’t think it depends on the factors you mention.

  2. We now have financial theatre as well.

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