US FCC decides AI robocalls are most definitely illegal

The US Federal Communications Commission has finally formally declared AI-generated voices in robocalls illegal, and it didn’t even need a new law to get the job done.

In a unanimously-decided declaratory ruling adopted February 2 but only published today, the FCC said it had the authority to make AI robocalls illegal under the existing Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) passed in 1991. The declaration is in line with what FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the Commission planned to do last week. 

The TCPA, designed to limit junk calls and telemarketing abuses, already includes restrictions on the use of “artificial and prerecorded” voices. Today’s declaratory ruling means the FCC considers that rule to include human voice-mimicking AI tech as well. 

“The [TCPA] is the primary law we have to help limit unwanted robocalls,”  Rosenworcel said in a statement today. The declaratory ruling “means that AI technologies like voice cloning fall within this law’s existing prohibitions and that calls that use this technology to simulate a human voice are illegal, unless callers have obtained prior express consent,” Rosenworcel added. 

The Commission said that the ruling would give additional leeway for state attorneys general to go after AI robocall operators, who can face steep fines for violating the TCPA. Each violation of the Act (i.e., a single call) can incur a fine of up to $500, which can be trebled to $1,500 if the violation is found to be willful. There’s no cap on statutory damages under the TCPA, meaning fines can easily reach into the millions when illegal calls were widely made. 

The FCC has been investigating the proliferation of AI robocalls and texts since November, though today’s ruling was likely accelerated by the New Hampshire presidential primary and reports of deepfake calls using the voice of President Joe Biden to convince Democratic primary voters not to vote. 

The source of the New Hampshire robocalls has since been identified as Texas-based Life Corporation, which provides polling and robocalling services for a variety of political causes on both sides of the aisle. 

According to the New Hampshire attorney general’s office, which has issued a cease and desist order to Life Corporation, the firm’s telecom provider suspended its services when made aware of the investigation. The New Hampshire AG believes somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 calls were made during the AI Biden call campaign. 

Biden, who wasn’t on the ballot due to a disagreement with local Democrats regarding scheduling, still handily won the state after a write-in campaign.

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

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