California legislature takes on bots, false news and privacy

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Some bills that would regulate websites, social media and other consumer-facing Internet services are moving ahead in the California legislature. But not all of them.

Assembly bill 3169, carried by James Gallagher (R – Chico), is dead. It would have required “social media Internet web sites” and search engines to be politically neutral. It would have failed any First Amendment test. The assembly privacy and consumer protection committee scrapped it by ignoring it – when the vote was taken, only two members, both democrats, said aye and the rest remained silent.

One of those voting aye, assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Monterey Park), has a couple of privacy bills pending. AB 2511 would put restrictions on web sites and applications that use information about minors; AB 2935 would do the same for information collected by health monitoring devices. Both made it out of committee and are queued up for a floor vote in the assembly.

As originally written, senate bill 1424 by Richard Pan (D – Sacramento) was as dumb an idea as Gallagher’s proposal. It would have required social media platforms to place a warning on news stories containing false information. Besides being completely unworkable, it too would have collapsed at the first mention of the First Amendment. Pan rewrote it to require sites to disclose fact checking and other editorial policies. Even as amended, SB 1424 still looks like an overreach, though. The senate judiciary committee is scheduled to take a look at it today.

Two bills took aim at bots – automated processes that can mimic people, and collect and post information on websites and social media. AB 1950 by Marc Levine (D – San Rafael) would have required sites that use bots to disclose the practice. It was also killed by the assembly privacy and consumer protection committee (although death is never final in the California legislature – anything can happen so long as it’s in session).

SB 1001 by Bob Hertzberg (D – Van Nuys) specifically targets bots that act like people – chatbots, as they’re sometimes called. If a company invites you chat online but doesn’t tell you that, say, Eliza, is just a computer program designed to make you think they care, then they could face consumer fraud charges. It was approved by both the senate judiciary and business, professions and economic development committees, and is awaiting a final blessing from legislative leaders on the appropriations committee before heading to the senate floor.