Bot or real person? – a question most online users probably don’t ask themselves when interacting online or seeing how many followers a person has on a social media platform. Most likely, online users don’t know whether they are talking to a “bot,” especially if they think they are communicating on or browsing an interactive site. This lack of transparency may be due to the fact that there is currently no enacted law that relates to the disclosure of the use of automated bot accounts on social media.

On Sept. 28, 2018, Governor Jerry Brown approved Senate Bill No. 1001, which will protect consumers and voters in California from being misled by these bots in certain circumstances. SB 1001 defines a bot as an “automated online account where all or substantially all of the actions or posts of that account are not the result of a person.” This bill bans bots from pretending to be real people when interacting with California consumers and voters if the bot is trying to incentivize a purchase of a good or service, or to influence a vote in an election. This bill will be effective July 1, 2019.

Bot advertising is far more pervasive than social media users may be aware. A 2017 study by the University of Southern California and Indiana University found that an estimated 48 million users on Twitter were automated accounts. Also in 2017, Facebook told investors that up to 60 million bots may be on the site. The California Legislature recognized that bots on social media sites can be used to skew viewers’ perceptions about the popularity of certain products and services online, as well as the popularity of electoral candidates. These skewed perceptions may be why a person buys something or votes for someone.

To continue using bots in such a capacity, persons and companies will be required to make a disclosure that is “clear, conspicuous, and reasonably designated” to inform persons with whom the bot communicates that it is a bot and not human. SB 1001 is not a draconian bill that entirely bans the use of bots; rather, it simply aims to foster transparency for California online users. This means a person or company that makes the proper disclosure will not be held liable under the law and can continue to use bots for advertising purposes.

Companies and individuals engaging in the use of bots online for commercial transactions should be sure to make the appropriate disclosures before continuing the advertising practice.

For more information contact the authors.