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Senators Consider Bot Legislation

The Senate Business, Professions, and Economic Development Committee voted on legislation for social media bots.

Automated accounts used to spread information on social medial websites may soon have to be identified as such under legislation approved Monday by a Senate panel.

The Senate Business, Professions, and Economic Development Committee approved the bill by an 8-1 vote after advocates pledged to work with critics who fear it could burden website operators.

SB 1001 by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, would require that accounts known as bots disclose their identity so that users can understand the information they see comes from a fake account, not an individual.

“We have seen just an explosion of the use of these bots,” Hertzberg told his colleagues. “What we’re trying to do is, I think, a reasonable step ... to try and put some light on this, transparency, tell the truth, are you real or not? Are you a bot or are you a human?”

The growing use of bots by businesses, celebrities and foreign actors has come under scrutiny since allegations that Russian accounts sought to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Bots are especially present on social media. Facebook is home to an estimated 60 million bots while another 48 million unlabeled bot accounts are on Twitter, said Danielle Kando-Kaiser, a lobbyist representing Common Sense Media. That’s concerning, she added, because 66 percent of American teens use Facebook, 47 percent use Twitter and 39 percent say they use social media as their preferred source of getting the news.

“Some of these bots may carry harmful messages, political propaganda, hate speech and discrimination, as well as false information and fake news with the intent to mislead and confuse Internet social media users,” Kando-Kaiser said.

Hertzberg’s bill defines a bot as a machine, device, computer program, or computer software that is designed to mimic or behave like a natural person in a way that a reasonable person is unable to discern its artificial identity. It would require any person who knowingly uses, hosts, or controls a bot to disclose that the bot is not a real person.

That’s a threshold that critics charged could put a burden on website operators.

“It appears you’re endeavoring to pass along responsibility or to shift responsibility from the user to the business,” said Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton.

And in a letter sent to the committee, opponents from the tech industry wrote that the bill requirements “could diminish the functionality and the speed of impacted websites, while failing to stop bad actors.”

Representatives for TechNet and the Internet Association told lawmakers they were working with Hertzberg to craft more amenable language so they could support the bill when it comes before the Judiciary Committee. Hertzberg said he intends to refine his measure because this is an area of growing concern nationally.

“The question for us as lawmakers in California is what do we do?” Hertzberg said. “Do we sit on the sidelines? I think the answer to the question is no. We engage.”