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Local News

With Georgia’s election season looming, state lawmakers debate penalties for AI deepfakes

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Ellie Woodward, Georgia Recorder
February 27, 2024

With early voting for Georgia’s presidential primary elections underway, lawmakers are poised to pass a bill in the Senate regulating the use of AI-generated media in election campaign advertisements. 

Holly Springs GOP Rep. Brad Thomas and Roswell GOP Sen. John Albers each authored a version of the bill in their respective legislative chambers intended to increase guardrails ahead of the 2024 election cycle. Each has expressed concerns about the deceptive capabilities of deepfake technology in Georgia elections. 

House Bill 986 was passed on Thursday by a vote of 144-22. It would allow a felony conviction for any person found guilty of election interference with the use of “materially deceptive media” within 90 days of an election. The focus of the bill is on AI-created media that falsely depicts individuals in a manner that would appear convincing to the “reasonable observer,” and the bill defines a “person” as one affiliated with political parties or organizations.

The bill comes as 20 companies including Meta, TikTok and X have signed onto the “Tech Accord to Combat Deceptive Use of AI in 2024 Elections.” The pledge from 20 companies sets in place defenses against misleading deepfake content across major social media platforms but doesn’t offer the same legal protections as legislation.

The proposal also follows the recent New Hampshire presidential primary, where someone used AI to impersonate President Joe Biden’s voice in a robocall advising Democrats he didn’t need their votes until November.

The need for swift action to pass AI law ahead of the 2024 election cycle was debated in a late January committee meeting that considered companion legislation, Senate Bill 392. Albers said remaining consistent with legal precedent is important, but a lack of AI legislation leaves the door open for exploitation by bad actors. 

“If something’s not illegal,” Albers said, “you better believe people on that moral or ethical edge are going to use that to their perverted advantage.” 

Testifying before the House Committee on Technology & Infrastructure Innovation, Thomas echoed Albers’ push to expedite regulations for AI media ahead of the election season.

The rapid expansion of AI and the threat of deepfake technology has led to bipartisan concern over deceptive, computer-generated media, yet, the AI election bill has been met with pushback from both sides of the political aisle. Members of the Legislature have argued against the precise wording of the bill and pushed for a policy that does less to punish misleading AI usage and more to pull fraudulent deepfakes from the internet and television. 

Responding to testimony from Albers at the Jan. 31 committee meeting, Acworth Republican Sen. Ed Setzler said achieving a conviction in a case against a person using deceptive deepfake material would come too late to maintain election integrity if that conviction was only reached after the election. He pushed instead for more focus to be placed on injunctive relief component.

Setzler also criticized the felony conviction penalty proposed in the bill and said it might be too harsh a punishment, using the example of a college student who creates a fraudulent election deepfake as a joke to highlight the variety of ways people might use misleading AI technology. Thomas has argued the specific wording of the bill will punish only the most malicious actors.

Among those concerned about the implications of the bill is the ACLU of Georgia. Sarah Hunt-Blackwell, the group’s policy advocate who testified in opposition to the legislation, said her organization supports the goal of the bill to combat election disinformation but wants to ensure the bill does not violate any First Amendment protections. 

“I think that we’re heading in the right direction,” said Hunt-Blackwell. “I just don’t want us to get too ahead of ourselves too quickly.”

Despite her concern, Hunt-Blackwell said she was happy to see the legislation add protections for satire, parody, artistic expression and journalistic works. 

Concerns over the First Amendment component of the legislation persisted at the Feb. 22 House meeting where the bill was passed. Woodstock GOP Rep. Charlice Byrd compared the bill to past government limitations on free speech such as the Patriot Act and said it would be misused by political candidates and party affiliates to silence opposing viewpoints.

Thomas said he has considered the concerns of lawyers, members of the Legislature and citizens to create something narrowly tailored enough to pass into law and not violate civil liberties. 

“We’ve had hours and hours of debate,” said Thomas. “We’ve made everything available for public input. That’s gotten us where we are today.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.