TRENTON, NJ – Looking to strike a balance between innovation, transparency, consumer protection and business bottom lines, a bill prohibiting the use of an online “bot” to communicate or interact for the purpose of misleading during a purchase, or to influence an election, cleared the Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee Thursday.

            “While I support and champion using innovation and technology to conduct business and provide automated access and messaging for consumers, there has to be a balance,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset) who sponsored by the bill. “Consumers have a right to know whether they are interacting with an actual person or a computer—it’s just that simple.”

            As defined by the bill, a bot is an automated online account where most of its posts are not operated by a person. The measure is similar to a recently signed law in California that makes it easier for residents to distinguish whether they are communicating with a human or a bot. That law will become effective July 1, 2019.

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            A person who violates the provisions of the New Jersey bill would be liable for a civil penalty of $2,500 for the first offense, $5,000 for the second offense, and $10,000 for each subsequent offense.  If the individual discloses that it is, or is using, a bot, liabilities would not be applicable. The disclosure would need to be clear, conspicuous and reasonably designed.  In addition, the measure would become effective 180 days after the date of enactment unless the Division of Consumer Affairs director takes action in advance.    

            According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, of the 66 percent of Americans who report familiarity with social media bots, 80 percent think they are used for mischievous activities. Another 66 percent view social media bots as negatively affecting Americans’ thoughts about current affairs.

            The bill was introduced in October and now awaits further consideration by the Assembly.