The political consultant behind fake Biden robocalls faces a $6 million fine and criminal charges

CONCORD, N.H. — A political consultant who sent artificial intelligence-generated robocalls that mimicked President Joe Biden's voice ahead of the New Hampshire presidential primaries faces a $6 million fine and more than 20 criminal charges.

The Federal Communications Commission said the fine it proposed Thursday for Steven Kramer is the first involving generative AI technology. The company accused of transmitting the calls, Lingo Telecom, faces a $2 million fine, although the parties in both cases could settle or continue negotiations, the FCC said.

Kramer has admitted to orchestrating a message sent to thousands of voters two days before the country's first primary elections on January 23. The message played an AI-generated voice, similar to that of the Democratic president, who used his phrase, “What a bunch of malarkey” and falsely suggested that voting in the primaries would deter voters from casting their ballots in November.

Kramer faces 13 charges for violating New Hampshire's law against trying to deter someone from voting using misleading information. He also faces 13 felony charges, accusing him of falsely portraying himself as a candidate through his own conduct or that of someone else. The charges have been filed in four counties and will be prosecuted by the attorney general's office.

Attorney General John Formella said New Hampshire is committed to ensuring the election remains “free from unlawful interference.”

“I am pleased to see that our federal partners are similarly committed to protecting consumers and voters from harmful robocalls and voter suppression,” said Formella, who was appointed by Republican Governor Chris Sununu.

Lingo Telecom said it strongly disagrees with the FCC's action, which it called an attempt to retroactively impose new rules.

“Lingo Telecom takes its legal obligations very seriously and has cooperated fully with federal and state agencies to assist in identifying the parties responsible for orchestrating the robocall campaign in New Hampshire,” the company said. “Lingo Telecom was in no way involved in the production of these calls and the actions it took complied with all applicable federal regulations and industry standards.”

Kramer, who owns a company that specializes in get-out-the-vote projects, did not respond to an email seeking comment Thursday. He told The Associated Press in February that he was not trying to influence the outcome of the election, but rather to send a wake-up call about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence when he paid a New Orleans magician $150 to make the recording .

“Maybe I'm a bad guy today, but I think we'll ultimately have a better country and a better democracy because of what I deliberately did,” Kramer said in February.

Voter suppression carries a penalty of 3 1/2 to 7 years in prison. Impersonating a candidate carries a prison sentence of up to one year.

In an interview days after he was publicly identified as the source of the calls, Kramer said he disagreed that his robocall suppressed voter turnout, noting that Biden won the Democratic primary by a wide margin as a registration candidate. While he did some voting work for another former Democratic presidential candidate, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Kramer said he acted alone.

“I wrestled in college. I am ready for the fight,” said Kramer, who will appear in court on June 5. “If they want to throw me in jail, good luck.”

Since the robocalls in New Hampshire, the FCC has taken steps to combat the growing use of artificial intelligence tools in political communications. In February it confirmed that AI tools for cloning voices in robocalls are banned under existing law, and on Wednesday it introduced a proposal to require political advertisers to disclose when they use artificial intelligence-generated content in television and radio ads.

If adopted, the new rules would add a layer of transparency that many lawmakers and AI experts have been calling for as rapidly advancing generative AI tools produce lifelike images, videos and audio clips that threaten to mislead voters in the upcoming U.S. elections.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Thursday that regulators are committed to helping states pursue perpetrators. In a statement, she called the robocalls in New Hampshire “unnerving.”

“Because if a caller sounds like a politician you know, a celebrity you like, or a well-known family member, any of us could be tricked into believing something that isn't true when calling using AI technology,” said them in a position. “It's exactly how the bad actors behind these unwanted calls with manipulated voices want you to respond.”

___

Swenson reported from New York.

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