Bots of the Internet, Reveal Yourselves!

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Neither Senator Hertzberg nor Jim Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, was overly concerned with criticism when interviewed about the bill in June. The senator called skepticism “the drivel of people who want to stop progress.” He said that the analysis he had seen had been influenced by lobbyists and was flat out wrong.

But after they were interviewed and the bill moved through the Assembly’s committees, the content of the proposed law changed substantially. The definition of bot grew more precise (from “online account” to “automated online account on an online platform”), and language that recommended an online platform for reporting bots was scrapped. Furthermore, the bill now asks only bots that are hoping to sell consumers good and services, or to influence votes in an election, to identify themselves as bots.

But even with the changes, the bill summons significant constitutional questions, said Ryan Calo, a co-director of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington, and Madeline Lamo, a former fellow at the lab.

Ms. Lamo said that language in the bill about bots “influencing a vote in an election” ran into a problem that has plagued campaign finance regulations and election-related speech laws: It can be difficult to distinguish speech about political issues from speech explicitly intended to influence voters.

Furthermore, she noted, the bill was simply not crafted to address the problem it had in mind. Insofar as bots have had sway over political views, they have acted at scale, with thousands of automated accounts working to spread a diverse array of messages. It’s hard to imagine, she said, that requiring individual accounts to identify themselves in a single state would do much to sap the strength of bot armies.

All parties agree that the bill illustrates the difficulty that lawmakers have in crafting legislation that effectively addresses the problems constituents confront online. As the pace of technological development has raced ahead of government, the laws that exist on the books — not to mention, some lawmakers’ understandings of technology — have remained comparatively stagnant. And, as Twitter’s action last week demonstrates, technology companies have the power to change dynamics on their platforms directly, and at the scale that those problems require. Turning a bill into a law can take a long time. And then the law runs the risk of being inexact.

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