California Just Passed A Law Banning Bots From Pretending To Be Human

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California has passed a law stating that people must be told if they are talking to a bot or a human online.

The law, which goes into effect on July 1, 2019, was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Friday, September 28. It will apply to companies who operate online chat services, where a bot can supply assistance to customers.

However, the law – SB 1001 – is intended to tackle commercial and political bots, that seek to sway the opinions of people online. This includes bots used on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

“[B]ots can be – and are often – weaponized to spread fake and misleading news, reshape political debates, and influence advertising audiences,” said the bill’s author, Senator Robert Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles), noted CBS Sacramento.

“SB 1001 sheds light on the fake accounts that simulate real people and spread waves of false information across social media platforms.”

Per the law, any bots used online will have to clearly state that they are indeed a bot. This will include accounts like, say, the Endless Screaming bot on Twitter, which tells us how far through the year we are.

But it also looks like there will be a knock-on effect on customer chatbots, perhaps unintended. Speaking to Quartz, an expert said the impact on those had not yet been fully worked out, and some aspects of how the law would be implemented remain vague.

“The bill was really written around social media accounts, Twitter and Facebook bots in particular,” said Carl Landers, chief marketing officer of conversational bot maker, Conversica.

“[We’re] still studying that to figure out what the impact might be on a website chatbot or an email bot in our case.”

Online bots have been a large problem over the last couple of years, after it was found they had been used maliciously to sway the results of the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Twitter announced plans to crack down on bots earlier this year, saying it had blocked millions of suspicious accounts. But bots remain ever-present, so California’s law would be another step towards reducing their impact.

However, in July this year, Jeremy Gillula from the Electric Frontier Foundation was quoted by the New York Times as saying the law would “cause a lot of collateral damage at the same time.”

Questions remain about how it will be implemented – will social media profiles have to clearly state if they are a bot? All we can say for now is long live the humans. Death to bots. That ought to do it. 

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