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Topical example (concerning the Facebook bias controversy of May 2016): if Facebook knowingly discriminated against conservative stories in its Trending feature, but told users and the press that there was no bias, could Facebook be prosecuted under U.S. law?

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No. In the United States, lying is not a crime.

Unless it is done:

  1. under oath (in which case it's called perjury) or
  2. to a law enforcement agent conducting an investigation (in which case it's called obstruction).

There are also the civil torts of slander (oral) and libel (written) if someone lies and damages the reputation or business interests of a person or company. Collectively, and without distinction, these are called defamation.

Lying also has a close cousin — the civil tort of fraud — which usually applies to inducement into a transaction or a contract.

There are also consumer protection statutes (federal and state) that deal with truth in advertising, truth in lending, lemon laws, etc. But those are primarily civil statutes and the last two are pretty far afield from your question.

But none of that applies to the Facebook case you described. So, no.

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    For completeness: One other scenario (though it doesn't appear to apply here) in which lying is a crime: Under 47 U.S.C. §509 it is a crime "to deceive the listening or viewing public" in something that purports to be a contest of knowledge, skill, or chance. – feetwet May 21 '16 at 16:51
  • For completeness: In many countries, when you sell a product it must deliver what you promised. If you in general lie to customers about what your product can do, the lying can violate all kinds of consumer laws. If you lie to one specific customer, then your product will not deliver what you promised, and you may be liable because your product can be seen as defective (doesn't work as promised, because you lied). – gnasher729 May 22 '16 at 22:07
  • In the U.S. this is addressed by the doctrine of implied warranty. And fitness for a particular purpose as well as other implied warranties depending upon the product being sold, unless they are disclaimed. However, there is no provision for lying, per se. For example, if a salesman tells you during the test drive a car gets 50 miles per gallon and it only gets 35, you can not necessarily win a judgment against the salesperson for lying. @gnasher729: When you write, in many other countries... that sparks my curiosity. Which countries? What law? Not doubting you. Just curious. – Alexanne Senger May 22 '16 at 22:17
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As @Mowser said in the US, no.

However, if this information was delivered to their customers in, say, Australia, they could be prosecuted there.

It is illegal for a business to engage in conduct that misleads or deceives or is likely to mislead or deceive consumers or other businesses. This law applies even if you did not intend to mislead or deceive anyone or no one has suffered any loss or damage as a result of your conduct.

The law specifically applies to information providers.

Penalties for large corporations typically run into the millions of dollars.

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    Interesting law. Sounds like 80% of the internet could be guilty of this in Australia. – Alexanne Senger May 21 '16 at 17:15
  • @Mowzer not to mention the supermarket tabloids, if they're anything like those in the US. – phoog May 23 '16 at 21:35

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