Ripped from the headlines…

From the #MeToo movement and the Equifax data breach to allegations of Russia meddling in our elections we have seen a virtual tsunami of bills attempting to respond to important issues that have garnered significant media attention.  Often, when reactionary legislation is “ripped from the headlines,” it is not narrowly tailored to solve the problem at hand, and knee-jerk, excessive regulation often comes with increased legal liability.  All of this is very problematic for businesses. 

 In the privacy and technology realm, there have been several bills introduced in the wake of the unprecedented news and allegations of Russians meddling in our elections.  One of the ways in which it is alleged that Russians engaged was through the use of automated accounts, or “bots” in social media.

 Thus, a number of bills were introduced this year to broadly regulate all internet “bots”.  For those newer to this realm, “bots” are widely used and they have become crucial to the day-to-day lives of virtually everyone using the internet.  An internet “bot” is a software application that runs automated tasks over the internet.  Typically, “bots” perform tasks that are both simply and structurally repetitive, at a much faster rate than would be possible for a human.  Just some examples of the automated tasks “bots” perform include a retailer sending an electronic receipt, a bank notifying a customer when their account is overdrawn, an online customer service chat-box, and a search engine performing online searches. 

 Another example of an internet “bot,” is an automated social media account, which is the type of “bot” thought to be used by the Russians.  Despite these distinctions, most of these bills did not limit their reach to this type of “bot.”  Moreover, some believe the biggest problem with Russian meddling on social media is not with automated accounts – but with Russians creating fake personas and using them to manipulate social media activity. 

 Attempts to broadly regulate technology – as opposed to focusing on the bad behavior at issue – do not have their intended impact.  Instead, as is the case for most “ripped from the headlines” legislation, the biggest impact will be felt by businesses – in the form of increased legal compliance costs and legal exposure.

 Sarah Boot, Policy Advocate