Social Bots Assemble in Anticipation for New California Bill: SB 1001

In our modern world, the validity of ideas, beliefs, and even scientific truths are subject to internet scrutiny. For instance, a political post that gets a high volume of likes and retweets may be noticed  by news outlets and recirculated through various other social media platforms such as Reddit, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  Within the course of a day a single tweet can cross the mind of millions of people around the world. The power and influence of social media outreach is clear and cannot be underestimated.

Following the 2016 general election, significant concerns surrounded this very concept. Specifically, attention turned towards manipulative artificial conversational entities, also known as “Social Bots.”

Social bots are alleged to play an active role in shaping public opinion. Many of those that invest in these bots tend to specifically target social media networks and automatically spread ‘fake news’, generate messages, posts and/or likes with the intent to sway real people’s opinions. Unfortunately, social bots are not limited to just a small corner of the internet; in fact, AAAI Publications estimates that between 9% and 15% of active Twitter accounts are bots and that 400,000 thousand bots were responsible for about 3.8 million tweets, roughly 19% of the total volume.

It’s clear that social bots can have a significant impact on our society and political atmosphere. In an effort to prevent election interference, California drafted and signed into law legislation regulating the use of such bots. The scope of this law is far reaching and is not limited to the regulation of manipulative social bots. The bill, titled Senate Bill No. 1001, implies a broader approach to the term and defines “bot” to mean the following:

“…an automated online account where all or substantially all of the actions or posts of that account are not the result of a person.”

This definition allows for the inclusion of other automated conversational programs. For example, it is common today to be prompted by a chat window on a company’s website, and websites that do so with virtual assistants or chatbot technology may be required to adhere to this bill. Effective July 1st, 2019 the law will prohibit any person to:

”…use a bot to communicate or interact with another person in California online, with the intent to mislead the other person about its artificial identity for the purpose of knowingly deceiving the person about the content of the communication in order to incentivize a purchase or sale of goods or services in a commercial transaction or to influence a vote in an election.”

Using this technology for the singular purpose of providing automated customer service assistance, however, will likely be exempt, as the legislation very clearly states that it restricts the use of bots – “…to communicate or interact with another person in California online… in order to incentivize a purchase or sale of goods or services in a commercial transaction….”

On the other hand, companies that use chatbot technology on their social media page and/or website to message individuals as they peruse their site, offering product or service recommendations, will need to carefully consider this unique bill and its requirements. Some may turn towards the wording of the legislation stating the prohibition is strictly referring to communication with individuals with the intent to mislead them, and knowingly deceive; however, history has shown courts often neglect to dismiss allegations of intent and deception, even if the defendant in question raises good arguments for the absence of such.

So, what does this mean? Do we have to stop using chatbot applications and programs? No – businesses will still be able to use chatbots, as long as they adhere to the Chatbot Safe Harbor.

The Safe Harbor requires websites/chat sessions to make a clear and conspicuous disclosure that is “…reasonably designed to inform person with whom the bot communicates or interacts with that it is a bot.”For a greater understanding of the clear and conspicuous requirements for the disclosure, it is recommended that businesses refer to the Federal Trade Commission’s .COM Disclosures Guidelines, which focus on the proximity and prominence of the disclosure, in addition to whether it is in language that is easily understood.

California is the only state that has signed something like this into law. With that being said, California has consistently demonstrated itself as a legislative trend-setter among other states. A decision must therefore be made about the territorial scope of the law; will your company identify California residents and provide disclosures to a segmented portion of your online traffic? Or, for simplicity’s sake and anticipation for other state legislation, will disclosures be provided to all site visitors across the board?

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