A robot commits libel. Who is responsible?

By Peter Georgiev, Reynolds Journalism Institute

Yet, for all their apparent infallibility, bots, like their human predecessors, are also vulnerable to mistakes. In the news business, one of the worst mistakes is committing libel. So, how should courts treat cases in which a robot generates a defamatory statement? Legal and tech experts believe now is the time to decide. Thanks to a series of landmark rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in the second half of the previous century, the First Amendment provides strong protection to journalists in defamation lawsuits. Public officials can’t recover damages for libel without first proving that the defendant had acted with “actual malice” — knowing that a statement was false or demonstrating reckless disregard for the truth. “That just doesn’t work very well with an algorithm,” says Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of University of Missouri’s School of Law and an expert in First Amendment law. “It’s hard to talk about the knowledge that an algorithm has or whether an algorithm acted recklessly.”

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