Tucker Bender, MJLST Staffer
While rapidly advancing artificial intelligence (AI) is certain to elevate technology and human efficiency, AI also poses several threats. Deepfakes use machine learning and AI to essentially photoshop individuals into images and videos. The advancement of AI allows unskilled individuals to quickly create incredibly lifelike fake media. Further, in an increasingly digital world, deepfakes can be used to rapidly disseminate misinformation and cause irreparable harm to someone’s reputation. Minnesota is an example of a state that has recently enacted deepfake law. However, some view these laws as a violation of First Amendment rights and as being unnecessary due to incentives for private companies to monitor their sites for misinformation.
Minnesota’s Deepfake Law
On August 1st, 2023, a deepfake law became effective in Minnesota. In the absence of any federal law, Minnesota joins a handful of states that have enacted legislation to combat deepfakes. Laws vary by state, with some allowing criminal charges in certain situations, while others allow a civil action. Specifically, the Minnesota law imposes civil and criminal liability for the “nonconsensual dissemination of a deep fake depicting intimate parts or sexual acts” and criminal liability for the “use of deep fake technology to influence an election”.
The law imposes severe penalties for each. For creating and disseminating a sexual deepfake, damages can include general and special damages, profit gained from the deepfake, a civil penalty awarded to the plaintiff in the amount of $100,000, and attorney fees. Additionally, criminal penalties can consist of up to three years imprisonment, a fine of up to $5,000, or both. Criminal penalties for use of deepfake technology to influence an election vary depending on whether it is a repeat violation, but can result in up to five years imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.
These two deepfake uses appear to elevate the penalties of Minnesota’s criminal defamation statute. The defamation statute allows up to one year of imprisonment, a fine of up to $3,000, or both for whoever “communicates any false and defamatory matter to a third person without the consent of the person defamed”.
It is completely logical for the use of deepfakes to carry harsher penalties than other methods of defamation. Other methods of defamation can be harmful, but typically consist of publications or statements made by a third party about a victim. Deepfakes, on the other hand, make viewers believe the victim is making the statement or committing the act themselves. The image association with a deepfake understandably creates greater harm, as recollection of the deepfake imagery can be difficult for viewers to dissociate from the victim.
Almost everyone can agree that the Minnesota deepfake law was needed legislation, as evidenced by the bill passing the House in a 127-0 vote. However, the law may be too narrow. Deepfake technology is indisputably damaging when used to create sexually explicit images of someone or to influence an election. But regardless of the false imagery depicted by the deepfake, the image association makes the harm to one’s reputation much greater than mere spoken or written words by a third party. By prohibiting only two uses of deepfake technology in the law, a door is left open for someone to create a deepfake of a victim spewing hateful rhetoric or committing heinous, non-sexual acts. While victims of these deepfakes can likely find redress through civil defamation suits for damages, the criminal liability of the deepfake creators would appear limited to Minnesota’s criminal defamation statute. Further, defamation statutes are better suited to protect celebrities, but deepfakes are more likely to be damaging to people outside of the public eye. There is a need for deepfake-specific legislation to address the technologically advanced harm that deepfakes can cause to the average person.
As state (and possibly federal) statutes progress to include deepfake laws, legislators should avoid drafting the laws too narrowly. While deepfakes that depict sexual acts or influence elections certainly deserve inclusion, so do other uses of deepfakes that injure a victim’s reputation. Elevated penalties should be implemented for any type of deepfake defamation, with even further elevated penalties for certain uses of deepfakes.
Opposition to Deepfake Laws
Although many agree that deepfakes present issues worthy of legislation, others are skeptical and worried about First Amendment rights, as well as broad legislation undermining valuable uses of the technology. Specifically, skeptics are concerned about legislation that targets political speech, such as the Minnesota statute, as political speech is arguably a category of free speech protected above any other.
Another real concern with broad deepfake legislation is that it would place a burden on innocent creators while doing little to stop those spreading malicious deepfakes. This is due, in part, to the difficulty in tracking down malicious deepfake uploaders, who do so anonymously. Proposed federal regulation suggests a requirement that “any advanced technological false personation record which contains a moving visual element shall contain an embedded digital watermark clearly identifying such record as containing altered audio or visual elements”. However, opponents view this as useless legislation. Deepfake creators and others wanting to spread misinformation clearly have the technical ability to remove a watermark if they can create advanced deepfakes in the first instance.
Role of Private Parties
Social media sites such as X (formerly known as Twitter) and Facebook should also be motivated to keep harmful deepfakes from being disseminated throughout their platforms. Users of these sites generally will want to be free from harassment and misinformation. This has led to solutions such as X implementing “Community Notes”, which allows videos created using deepfake technology to remain on the platform, but clearly labels them as fake or altered. Private solutions such as this may be the best compromise. Viewers are able to understand the media is fake, while creators are still able to share their work without believing their free speech is being impinged upon. However, the sheer amount of content posted on social media sites makes it inevitable that some harmful deepfakes are not marked accordingly, and thus cause misinformation and reputational injury.
Although altered images and misinformation are nothing new, deepfakes and today’s social media platforms present novel challenges resulting from the realism and rapid dissemination of the modified media. Whether the solution is through broad, narrow, or nonexistent state laws is left to be determined and will likely be a subject of debate for the foreseeable future.