California wants to ensure that consumers know what they are talking to.
On July 1, 2019, California’s new bot disclosure law will take effect, requiring bots to be upfront about their inhumanity. The law prohibits bots from communicating with a person in California with the intent to mislead as to their artificial identity for the purpose of knowingly deceiving the person about the content of the communication in order to incentivize the sale of goods or services in a commercial transaction, or to influence a vote (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17940).
Although the law’s “intent to mislead” requirement suggests that bad actors are the target here, the law’s broad language likely sweeps in legitimate, honest businesses as well. For example, if a business website automatically displays a “How May I Help You?” chat tab on the bottom of the webpage, displaying a human name or picture but using a bot to field or direct initial customer queries, a Court could find intent to mislead.
The law’s broad language may eventually be clarified through litigation, but companies should not be too eager to test the law’s limits. With a maximum fine of $2,500 per violation, a labor-saving bot could quickly become a company’s most costly employee.
Helpfully, the law provides that “[a] person using a bot shall not be liable under this section if the person discloses that it is a bot.” Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17940. This disclosure must be clear and conspicuous, and must be reasonably designed to inform the person on the other end of the conversation that they are communicating with a bot.
Businesses that interact with users in California, via a website, an app, or social media, need to make sure that any bots—automated online accounts where substantially all of the actions or posts are not the result of a person—are forthcoming about their non-humanity.