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‘Bot Bill’ Moves Ahead In California Legislature, But Not Without Opposition

Matt Rourke/ File / AP

FILE - In this May 16, 2012 file photo, the Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke/ File / AP

A bill that would require social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to clearly label automated accounts — or ‘bots’ — is moving forward in the California Legislature, despite opposition from some tech companies and civil liberties groups.

Opponents say the so-called ‘Bot Bill,’ or SB 1001, is too strict and could limit First Amendment rights.

“Speech generated by bots is often simply speech of natural persons processed through a computer program; this provision would chill the use of bots for many ordinary speech activities ranging from poetry to political speech,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a letter in April.

Meanwhile, supporters say the measure could be a nationwide model for transparency and could help curb some of the disinformation spread on social media. They point to the use of bots during the 2016 presidential election and during school shootings as examples.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles), said he’s narrowed the legislation and removed some of its reporting requirements to address concerns. Still, he said, the core proposal to shed light on accounts purporting to come from a human remains the same.

“We just want people to know that it’s a computer. It’s like a Betty Crocker seal of approval, or whatever. That Facebook has to say, ‘This is a computer talking to you,’” Hertzberg told Capital Public Radio.

He said that the bill does not seek to ban the automated accounts.

James Steyer, CEO and founder of the children’s advocacy group Common Sense Media, said the legislation would be a major step forward.

“This is basically a transparency in democracy bill,” Steyer said. “And California would become the standard bearer for the entire United States to help the public understand when they are being deceived by non-human actors on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.”

“There is a tremendous amount of noise and misinformation out there,” Steyer added. “And the tech industry to date has taken little to no responsibility to clean this mess up.”

Responding in January to criticism from Congress that tech companies aren’t doing enough to address misinformation, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s general counsel, wrote in a letter that the company continues “to strengthen our fight against malicious automation.”

The attorney added that Twitter has created a “dedicated Information quality team,” which focuses on detecting and stopping “bad automation.”

The bot bill passed through its first Assembly committee this week after the State Senate approved it in May. It faces another Assembly committee hearing on Tuesday.

Hertzberg, in an effort to highlight the fake accounts, has created a bot @Bot_Hertzberg. It’s a self-identified automated Twitter account.

The lawmaker has said the bot “will create automated posts, based on modern research, to explain why this bill is important and to demonstrate that bots, when properly identified, can exist positively in the social media ecosystem.”

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