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FCC votes to ban scam robocalls that use AI-generated voices

<i>dramalens/iStockphoto/Getty Images</i><br/>FCC votes to outlaw scam robocalls that use AI-generated voices
dramalens/iStockphoto/Getty Images
FCC votes to outlaw scam robocalls that use AI-generated voices

By Brian Fung, CNN

Washington (CNN) — The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday it is immediately outlawing scam robocalls featuring fake, artificial intelligence-created voices, cracking down on so-called “deepfake” technology that experts say could undermine election security or supercharge fraud.

The unanimous FCC vote extends anti-robocall rules to cover unsolicited AI deepfake calls by recognizing those voices as “artificial” under a federal law governing telemarketing and robocalling.

The FCC’s move gives state attorneys general more legal tools to pursue illegal robocallers that use AI-generated voices to fool Americans, the FCC said.

“Bad actors are using AI-generated voices in unsolicited robocalls to extort vulnerable family members, imitate celebrities, and misinform voters,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “We’re putting the fraudsters behind these robocalls on notice.”

The decision to interpret the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) more broadly to include AI-generated voices comes weeks after a fake robocall that impersonated President Joe Biden targeted thousands of New Hampshire voters and urged them not to participate in the state’s primary.

Authorities said this week they had linked those fake calls to a Texas man and two companies in an ongoing investigation that could lead to civil and criminal penalties.

In its announcement Thursday, the FCC said those who wish to send robocalls “must obtain prior express consent from the called party before making a call that utilizes artificial or prerecorded voice simulated or generated through AI technology.”

With Thursday’s change, scam robocalls featuring cloned voices would be subject to the same fines and consequences associated with illegal robocalls that do not use the technology. The FCC had announced it was considering the proposal last week.

Violations of the TCPA can carry stiff civil penalties. In 2021, the FCC announced a $5 million proposed fine against right-wing operatives Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman for allegedly using illegal robocalls to discourage voting in the 2020 election.

The number of robocalls placed in the US peaked at around 58.5 billion in 2019, according to estimates by YouMail, a robocall blocking service. Last year, the figure was closer to 55 billion.

As the FCC updates its interpretation of federal law, some US lawmakers have proposed revising the law directly to further deter illegal robocallers. House Democrats unveiled legislation this year that would double the TCPA’s maximum penalties when a robocall violation involves the use of AI.

Andrew Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, called the FCC’s move an important step forward.

“No one should think that this will stop bad actors from doing bad things,” he said, “but it gives the FCC tools to act quickly and to deter the companies that facilitate these practices.”

Phone providers that persistently facilitate illegal robocalls can and have been forcibly disconnected from the US telephone network by FCC order, as part of a wider crackdown on illegal robocalls by state and federal officials.

Dan Jasnow, a partner in the law firm ArentFox Schiff’s AI, Metaverse and Blockchain industry group, said that while the ruling makes it “crystal clear” that AI-powered voice cloning in scam calls are illegal, it isn’t enough.

“Protecting our elections and reducing AI-related scams will require a combined effort of government and industry,” he said, “including watermarking of AI-generated content, more robust consumer consent and disclosure mechanisms and a commitment by utilities and telecom providers to act quickly in response to notices of fraudulent and deceptive conduct.”

This story has been updated.

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