New California Law Says Bots Must Introduce Themselves

California Gov. Jerry Brown

California Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 29 signed S.B. 1001 into law. The legislation prohibits automated accounts–colloquially known as bots–from pretending to be human when attempting to “incentivize a purchase or sale of goods or services in a commercial transaction or to influence a vote in an election.”

The law does not ban bots in California; rather it requires bots to disclose their bot status in a way that is “clear, conspicuous, and reasonably designed.”

“Bots can be–and are often–weaponized to spread fake and misleading news, reshape political debates, and influence advertising audiences,” State Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, the bill’s co-author, said in a statement. “On the internet, where the appearance of a mass audience can be monetized, it is critical to protect users by providing the tools to understand if their information is coming from a human or a bot account disguised as one.”

The legislation is specifically targeting bots on social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter. The law references bots working on an “online platform” and defines that as a website or application with 10 million or more unique monthly U.S. visitors for a majority of months over the past calendar year. Smaller websites or apps will not be impacted by the new law.

“As long as bots are properly identified to let users know that they are a computer generated or automated account, users can at least be aware of who they are interacting with and judge the content accordingly,” Hertzberg said.

While the Common Sense Kids Action supported the legislation, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Grocers Association, the Data and Marketing Association, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation all voiced opposition to the bill.

In a statement, they explained that they opposed the law because “aspects of the bill are vague, and the bill places onerous burdens on the operators of websites and applications.” They also raised concerns that the new law may hamper innovation because the requirements “are burdensome and could diminish the functionality and the speed of impacted websites, while failing to stop bad actors.”

While the law comes amidst growing cybersecurity concerns surrounding the midterm elections, the law will not go into effect until July 1, 2019.

Gov. Brown, a Democrat, also recently signed a net neutrality bill into law and was promptly sued by the Department of Justice (DoJ). Gov. Brown signed S.B. 822, which restores in the state Obama-era Federal net neutrality laws that were gutted by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year. Almost immediately, the DoJ filed a lawsuit against the state of California to overturn the new law because, according to a DoJ statement, the legislation “unlawfully imposes burdens on the Federal government’s deregulatory approach to the Internet.”

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