FCC bans AI-generated robocalls

Thanks to a 1991 telecom law, scammers could face over $25,000 in fines per call.
Hand reaching to press 'accept' on unknown smartphone call
The FCC wants to deter bad actors ahead of the 2024 election season. Deposit Photos

The Federal Communications Commission unanimously ruled on Thursday that robocalls containing AI-generated vocal clones are illegal under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.The telecommunications law passed over 30 years ago now encompasses some of today’s most advanced artificial intelligence programs. The February 8 decision, effective immediately, marks the FCC’s strongest escalation yet in its ongoing efforts to curtail AI-aided scam and misinformation campaigns ahead of the 2024 election season.

“It seems like something from the far-off future, but it is already here,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement accompanying the declaratory ruling. “This technology can confuse us when we listen, view, and click, because it can trick us into thinking all kinds of fake stuff is legitimate.”

[Related: A deepfake ‘Joe Biden’ robocall told voters to stay home for primary election.]

The FCC’s sweeping ban arrives barely two weeks after authorities reported a voter suppression campaign targeting thousands of New Hampshire residents ahead of the state’s presidential primary. The robocalls—later confirmed to originate from a Texas-based group—featured a vocal clone of President Joe Biden telling residents not to vote in the January 23 primary.

Scammers have already employed AI software for everything from creating deepfake celebrity videos to hawk fake medical benefit cards, to imitating an intended victim’s loved ones for fictitious kidnappings. In November, the FCC launched a public Notice of Inquiry regarding AI usage in scams, as well as how to potentially leverage the same technology in combating bad actors.

According to Rosenworcel, Thursday’s announcement is meant “to go a step further.” Passed in 1991, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act at the time encompassed unwanted and “junk” calls containing artificial or prerecorded voice messages. Upon reviewing the law, the FCC (unsurprisingly) determined AI vocal clones are ostensibly just much more advanced iterations of the same spam tactics, and thereby are subject to the same prohibitions.

“We all know unwanted robocalls are a scourge on our society. But I am particularly troubled by recent harmful and deceptive uses of voice cloning in robocalls,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said in an accompanying statement. Starks continued by calling generative AI “a fresh threat” within voter suppression efforts ahead of the US campaign season, and thus warranted immediate action.

In addition to potentially receiving regulatory fines of more than $23,000 per call, vocal cloners are now also open to legal action from victims. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act states individuals can recover as much as $1,500 in damages per unwanted call.