Bots in the Court of Law

What are bots, and why should lawyers be concerned about them? For this blog topic of discussion, bots are considered “a device or piece of software that can execute commands, reply to messages, or perform routine tasks, as online searches, either automatically or with minimal human intervention.”  For law enforcement, such bots are an emerging threat because they are being programmed to carry out online tasks that sometimes can cross the line into illegal activities.

Bots don’t create themselves—they are programmed by humans.  But it is getting harder and harder to trace responsibility for bad bot behavior to an entity that lawyers are more accustomed to prosecuting in a court of law.  After all, one can’t prosecute a computer system.  It all boils down to who should be judged for the bot’s actions.

A recent art exhibit in Switzerland featured a bot that was programmed to purchase $100 worth of goods in the virtual currency, Bitcoin.  While a computer program might not be thought of as a standard art exhibit, the artists chose that medium to explore the nature of dark markets.  The bot’s instructions were generic, but it ended up making purchases of illegal goods. The programmers say didn’t specifically set out to knowingly purchase the illegal goods, but nonetheless they also have said that they will be responsible for the bot’s purchases.  When the art installation was over, Swiss authorities seized the bot and its loot.  Whether the bot and the contraband will be kept by law enforcement remains to be determined.

Similar bot bans and prompts in the court of law have included a case in Tennessee where bots purchased large amounts of event tickets and then resold them later at a higher price.  Likewise, a bot was programmed to automatically progress a character through the lower levels of the computer game, World of Warcraft, so its human owner wouldn’t have to spend time doing so and could progress through the game easier.  There are also examples from around the most recent turn of the century about “web-scraping bots” (which automate the gleaning of websites) and whether the information gleaned in bulk through websites could be used for corporate profit.

What makes this challenging for law enforcement is that bots are not inherently bad.  Bots do helpful things like clean up Wikipedia sites and scan for airline flight options.  For law enforcement, the liability in bots comes down to intent and to tracing responsibility back to the owner or original programmer.


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