There’s nothing loljk about Microsoft’s teenage chatbot, Zo.
California governor Jerry Brown signed regulations into law last Friday (Sept. 30) that should make it easier for Californians to know whether they’re speaking to a human or a bot.
The new law goes into effect on July 1, 2019—Botageddon, as we’re going to call it—and could have far-reaching consequences for how automated systems communicate with people online. It will require companies to disclose whether they are using a bot to communicate with the public on the internet (something like “Hi, I’m a bot.”) A representative for California state senator Robert Hertzberg, who authored SB-1001, says the law specifically targets deceptive commercial and political bots, not those meant to help you, for example, pay a bill on a company’s website. Still, companies that have built their businesses around automated messaging and chatbots will in coming months need to figure out whether their approaches are compliant with the new law.
The bill also specifically defines online content as publicly-facing, which raises questions about whether bot-sent emails fall under the new law. Overall, Landers expects there will be a “lot of litigation” before the law is actually implemented.
Legal experts warn about blanket disclosures for bot accounts, saying that in some contexts they could track closely to “compelled speech,” the highly litigated disclosures found on cigarette packaging and political advertisements.
Ryan Calo, co-author of a legal essay titled “Regulating Bot Speech,” says it’s also not always easy to track what is commercial or political, especially when bots can generate unpredictable text.
“There’s still concern over how we know that this is proposing a commercial transaction, how do we really know its influencing an election?” Calo says. “What’s the line, and people who operate bots that are political in nature or people who operate bots that have anything to do with commerce, are they going to be chilled?”
Starting at the state level adds complications of its own. Regulations that govern behavior on the internet are particularly difficult for internet companies to cope with because they force geographic barriers on products that would otherwise apply to all users equally. SB-1001 may force companies to make a difficult choice: Disclose they’re using bots to talk to people, or lose residents of California as customers.