Won the 2014 Benjamin Siegel Prize in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT
Direct interactions between humans and bots generally conjure up images from science fiction of Terminator robots or artificial intelligence gone rogue, like 2001’s HAL or The Matrix. In reality, AI is still far from much of that sophistication, yet we are already faced with the ethical and legal ramifications of bots in our everyday lives. Drones are being used for collecting military intelligence and bombing runs. U.S. states have passed laws to address self-driving cars on public roads. And nearer the subject of this paper, the legality of search engine bots has been openly questioned on grounds of intellectual property protection and trespassing. Bots inspire fear because they represent the loss of control. These fears are in some ways justified, particularly on grounds of privacy invasion. Online privacy protection is already a fraught space, comprising varied and strong positions, and existing laws and regulations that are antiquated many times over by the rapid growth and innovation of the internet in recent decades. The emergence of social bots, as means of entertainment, research, and commercial activity, poses an additional complication to online privacy protection by way of information asymmetry and failures to provide informed consent. In the U.S., the lack of an explicit right to privacy and the federal government’s predilection for laissez faire corporate regulation expose users to a risk of privacy invasion and unfair treatment when they provide personal data to websites and online services, especially those in the form of social bots. This paper argues for legislation that defines a general right to privacy for all U.S. citizens, addressing issues of both access and control of personal information and serving as the foundation for auditable industry design standards that inherently value and honor users’ rights to privacy.