California's Bot Disclosure

April 2020

Do you remember when the first chatbot, ELIZA, was developed in the 1960's by MIT's Joseph Weizenbaum? No? Perhaps you recall the second wave of chatbot developed by a Chinese company, WeChat, in 2009. Artificial data technology didn't kick in until 2016 which tackled daily tasks that companies believed could be carried out by technology. With a handful of chatbots introduced throughout the century, the most commonly known among the group include Alexa, Google Now, and Siri. But with concerns in the data privacy space, a tool that was initially designed for marketing automation is now being scrutinized by the state of California.

Proposed Bill

The state has become the landmark first in contentious legal matters the cannabis, real estate, and technology space. In conjunction with the California Consumer Protection Act, the newest bill, known as the B.O.T ("Bolstering Online Transparency") Act would...

“... with certain exceptions, make it unlawful for any person to use a bot to communicate or interact with another person in California online with the intent to mislead the other person about its artificial identity for the purpose of knowingly deceiving the person about the content of the communication in order to incentivize a purchase or sale of goods or services in a commercial transaction or to influence a vote in an election. The bill would define various terms for these purposes. The bill would make these provisions operative on July 1, 2019."

What's a "Bot"?

The state's definition includes an "automated online account where all or substantially all of the actions or posts of that account are not the result of a person." For online platforms, this includes public-facing websites, web apps, digital apps, and social networks. Among the primary intentions of developing a bot, its creators had goals of expediting business processes for the day-to-day tasks that took marketers exponentially more amount of time. Over time, bots have been considerable questionable regarding their ethical roles (or lack thereof as they impersonate a real human) along with data privacy issues.

Bots: The Good and The Bad

With a heavy increase in bot usage, there's been a wide variety of data privacy legal concerns. Among those that have headlined recent news, bot attacks include:

Bots can also be attributed to the rise of data analytics with valuable marketing information through web crawlers like Googlebot. Others have even been used to track down criminals for illicit behaviors of underage sexual activity, drug selling, and gun possesion. Unfortunately, approximately half of all Internet traffic can be tracked to bot usage.

I've Got a Bot: Now What? 

If you're located in California, there's more urgency for you to make some changes under the statue. Based on the law, you won't be held liable as long you have a disclosure that is "clear, conspicuous, and reasonably designed." You'll be able to keep an automated bot, but you'll need to make sure your users are aware. Since the statue is in its exploratory phase, there's a couple of items that may make you exempt: 

  1. It only applies to platforms with more than 10 million monthly users. If you're a small business, you won't be faced with any of the hardships that the law may place on your company operations.
  2. It only applies to activity within California. It's not entirely clear what guidelines will be in place for online transactions that cross state lines.

In his Medium blog post, California Sen. Bob Hertzberg pointed out that

"the BOT Act does not prohibit the existence of bots, but rather simply requires them to identify themselves."

With heightened concerns of fake information, the statute's penultimate goal will be to prioritize public access to information with zero meddling in our upcoming elections. Will other states follow? Only time will tell. If you're considering incorporating a bot in your marketing strategy, get in touch! I'll work with you determine the best bot on the market for you along with optimized practices to increase your conversion rates.

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