California’s Online BOT Bill

In July 2019, California became the first state to require online bots to identify themselves. The Bolstering Online Transparency Law (SB 1001) makes it unlawful for a person or entity to use a bot to communicate online in an attempt to influence a consumer’s voting or purchasing decisions without first identifying itself as a bot.

What is the California BOT Bill?

The goals of the BOT bill are to:

  • §17941(a): Make it unlawful for online bots to communicate with people in California in order to incentivize the sale of goods or influence election votes – without disclosure.
  • §17500: Expand on prior law, prohibiting businesses (and now “bots”) from making untrue or misleading statements regarding the sale of goods and services.

California BOT Law Background

California Senator Bob Hertzberg introduced the bill primarily to “protect democracy” from disingenuous accounts programmed to misinform the public. Senator Hertzberg explained that “Bots continue to misrepresent public sentiments and perceptions about topics, or to mute dissenting opinions and distract from current events.”.

During the 2016 political season, social media bots accounted for 3.8 million (19 percent) of US election-related tweets. Twitter told a Senate committee that a Russian intelligence agency had 2,752 Twitter accounts, of which 47 percent were bots. The issue at stake is scale – bots can accomplish what it takes thousands of humans to do in the same amount of time.

The BOT Bill Aims to Go After Malicious AI Accounts

Senator Hertzberg said the bill is intended to go after:

  • Companies who claim, “I’m going to sell or IPO my company” and misrepresent their followers to defraud investors.
  • Companies who claim they can expand your social media platform by “an extra 10,000 followers,” when in fact, they signed up 10,000 bot accounts to defraud the investor seeking human followers.
  • Individuals with political agendas who look to exploit the headlines by making money off fake news.

What Does California’s BOT Bill Mean for Businesses?

If you’re a company using AI accounts, you may wonder if and how the law applies to your operations. To understand the implications, consider how the law has been defined:

What is a Bot?

The law defines a “bot” as “an automated online account where all or substantially all of the actions or posts of that account are not the result of a person.” The law applies to all public-facing websites, applications, or social networks with at least 10 million monthly visitors.

Disclosures must be “clear, conspicuous, and reasonably designed” to inform people that it is a bot.

What consequences are in place?

There is no private right of action included in the law, and it does not impose a duty on service providers. Still, the Attorney General has said failure to disclose is considered fraud under California’s unfair competition laws, which may result in fines, jail time, and other remedies.

However, overly broad language like “intent” and “bot” could potentially mean steep fines for businesses using chatbots for customer service or marketing.

Questions Remain with the California BOT Bill

As with most laws, there is much room for interpretation.

  • Where is the jurisdiction? For instance, the BOT bill applies within the state of California – but what about online activity crossing state, or even international lines?
  • Are customer service chatbots included? The definition of a bot can be ambiguous. What if the “bot” is manned by a human customer service rep?
  • What actions violate the law? Does sharing a news story “attempt to influence” a vote or election?
  • How must the disclosure be made? What makes a disclosure “clear and conspicuous,” and how often or in what manner must the disclosure be made?
  • How will the law be enforced? The state government lacks the resources to identify bots. What will happen when the originator of the account cannot be tracked? The platforms have been absolved from having to facilitate the badge verification or reporting frameworks. Smaller websites might try to dodge the law.

Could BOT Potentially Impact Consumer Privacy?

Free speech advocates worry that legitimate ways of using social media bots for politics or artistic speech may be impacted. The Electronic Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, has been a vocal critic of the BOT Act, arguing that bots are simply outlets for their human creators to express themselves. “Bots are used for all sorts of ordinary and protected speech activities, including poetry, political speed, and even satire,” they have said. “Disclosure mandates would restrict and chill the speech of artists whose projects may necessitate not disclosing that a bot is a bot.”  

Senator Hertzberg argues he’s not looking to curtail First Amendment rights, but rather, he wants “a little Good Housekeeping seal that says, ‘this is a bot.’” There is a constitutional right to be anonymous online, but there is no right to “falsely represent that one thing is something else,” he says.

What’s Next?

It will be interesting to see what claims arise related to this new bill and how it might be modified or clarified in the years to come. Worth noting: Senator Herzberg also helped introduced the California Consumer Privacy Act, another controversial bill that passed recently. (You can read more about how CCPA impacts on claims administration here.)

Mark Rapazzini
Mark Rapazzini consults with clients in the consumer, food and beverage, labor and employment, finance and mass tort practice areas. He has over 25 years of legal experience in cases ranging from individual personal injury litigation to class actions and complex mass torts. Mark also has over fourteen years of experience managing complex claims administration matters and has managed and supervised the administration of employment, securities, consumer, property, and various other types of class action settlements.

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