California Senate Approves Anti-Deepfake Bill Despite Free Speech Concerns

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Shunning free speech concerns brought by civil liberties groups, the California Senate on Friday approved a bill meant to protect political candidates from deceptive social media videos known as deepfakes.

Inspired by a doctored video that made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear drunk during a speech and went viral, Assembly Bill 730 would give candidates the ability to sue people or organizations that share deepfakes without warning labels near Election Day.

Supporters say the deceptive technology has the potential to impact elections in the Golden State and elsewhere.

“It’s a powerful and dangerous new tool for those wanting to wage disinformation campaigns,” said state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles.

The bill specifically bars individuals and entities from sharing deepfakes of candidates within 60 days of an election. Radio and broadcast stations would still be allowed to share the videos as long as they include a disclosure stating that it has been manipulated. In addition, outlets would not be held liable for airing paid political advertisements that were deceptively edited.

The media exemptions weren’t enough to sway the California News Publishers Association, which opposed AB 730 along with the California Cable and Telecommunications Association. The media groups say candidates can already pursue existing defamation and false light views to fight deepfakes, and cast the proposal as a free speech threat.

“Ultimately, better education and advances in technology will allow individuals to better understand whether an image or recording has been manipulated, without burdening First Amendment rights,” the publishers association said in its opposition letter.

Hertzberg acknowledged the opponents’ concerns, but added that the bill has been vetted by legal experts.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees that deepfakes present a real threat to the democratic process and that AB 730 is likely constitutional.

“Most importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that speech which is defamatory of public officials and public figures has no First Amendment protection if the speaker knows the statements are false or acts with reckless disregard of the truth,” Chemerinsky wrote in support of the bill. “The court has explained that the importance of preventing wrongful harm to reputation and of protecting the marketplace of ideas justifies the liability for the false speech.”

The measure received bipartisan support and cleared the Senate by a 29-7 margin. The Assembly will vote Friday on the recent amendments and decide whether to send the bill to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

State Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, called the bill “absolutely essential.”

“This is very telling of our times, we need protections of this sort,” Borgeas said.

The Assembly on Friday also approved a similar bill that would allow victims of fake sex videos or photographs to sue for damages. The measure is sponsored by the Screen Actor’s Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and there was no registered opposition.

“For our members in the film industry, this type of nonconsensual digital doubling is at its very core extreme worker exploitation,” the group said in support of Assembly Bill 602. “Unfortunately, the law hasn’t evolved as fast as technology to prevent this type of thing from occurring.”

Gov. Newsom will have until Oct. 13 to sign the measure by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto.

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