Congress Considering Deep Fakes Law

The technological ability to create convincing “deep fakes” is getting some attention in Congress. The adult entertainment industry has already struggled with deep fake porn, and the unsettled intellectual property issues generated by this type of content. On the one hand, rights holders can assert trademark, copyright, and/or publicity rights claims against producers of deep fakes. Publishers, on the other hand, can argue “fair use”, Section 230 immunity, or First Amendment protections in certain circumstances. But the recent publication of a doctored depiction of Nancy Pelosi appearing to stammer through her words, has apparently caught the eyes of some politicians who are poised to take action.

In early June, 2019, Rep. Yvette D. Clarke [D-NY] introduced H.R. 3230, the Defending Each and Every Person from False Appearances by Keeping Exploitation Subject to Accountability Act of 2019, in the House of Representatives. The DEEP FAKES Accountability Act intends to “combat the spread of disinformation through restrictions on deep-fake video alteration technology.” If passed, the bill would create both criminal and civil penalties for failing to disclose a covered deep fake and for altering disclosures. The bill would also create a private right of action for those injured by covered deep fakes. The bill was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Committee on Homeland Security. If the bill is passed, it will take effect one year after it is enacted.

Rather than imposing restrictions on all deep fakes, the bill would impose a watermark and disclosure requirement on all deep fakes which are “advanced technological false personation records” – meaning any deep fake that a reasonable person would believe accurately depicts a living or, in more limited instances, deceased person who did not consent to the production. The bill would apply only to those productions which appear to authentically depict the speech or conduct of a person by technical means. The bill would purposefully exclude productions that utilize the skills of another person capable of physically or verbally impersonating the falsely depicted living or deceased person. The bill would also provide an exception for parodies, historical reenactments, and fictionalized programming that a reasonable person would not mistake as depicting actual events.

All visual-only “advanced technological false personation records” must include an unobscured written statement at the bottom of the image for the duration of the visual element that the deep fake contains altered audio and visual elements and that explains the extent thereof. All audio-only “advanced technological false personation records” must likewise include at least one clearly articulated verbal statement at the beginning of the record that the deep fake contains altered audio and visual elements and explaining the extent thereof. This verbal statement requirement applies to every two minutes of audio. All audiovisual “advanced technological false personation records” must include both an unobscured written statement and at least one clearly articulated verbal statement. Finally, all “advanced technological false personation records” that include a moving visual element must contain a watermark clearly identifying the deep fake as containing altered audio or visual elements.

Software developers that reasonably believe their software may be used to produce deep fakes would be required to ensure that their software allows for the insertion of necessary watermarks and disclosures and includes terms of use that require the user to affirm their general awareness of their legal obligations under this bill.

If passed, an individual may be fined, imprisoned for up to 5 years, or both, for knowingly failing to include a required watermark or disclosure (1) with the intent to humiliate or harass by falsely, visually depicting a person engaging in sexual activity or in a state of nudity, (2) with the intent to cause violence or physical harm, incite armed or diplomatic conflict, or interfere in an official proceeding, and the deep fake did in fact pose a credible threat of doing so, (3) in the course of criminal conduct related to fraud, or (4) by a foreign power or agent, with the intent of influencing policy debates or elections.

The legislation also provides criminal penalties for  knowingly altering the deep fake to remove or obscure the watermark or disclosure with the intent to distribute the altered deep fake and with one of the four prongs listed in the paragraph above. In addition to prison time, the proposed law allows for a civil penalty of up to $150,000 per deep fake as well as appropriate injunctive relief. An individual or affiliated business entity who is falsely exhibited in a deep fake would be able to seek damages and injunctive relief against anyone that violates the disclosure requirements of anti-alteration clauses of this bill. Damages would be the greater of actual damages or $50,000 per deep fake, except the limit would increase to $100,000 per deep fake that depicts extreme or outrageous conduct by the falsely depicted person and would increase to $150,000 per deep fake containing sexually explicit visual content intended to humiliate or harass the falsely depicted person. An individual would be able to file the private action under seal if there is a reasonable likelihood that the creation of public records would result in embarrassing or harmful publication of falsified material.

The bill would also create a process by which producers of deep fakes may seek an advisory opinion from the Attorney General about the legality of their proposed deep fakes within 30 days. The Attorney General would not be able to enforce this law against any producer of deep fakes that relies on an advisory opinion in good faith. The Attorney General would also be required to issue rules governing the technical specifications of the required watermarks within one year of enactment. The Attorney General would designate a coordinator in each United States Attorney’s Office to receive reports from the public regarding potential violations by foreign states and agents as well as any violations depicting acts of an intimate or sexual nature.

In the year after the bill is passed, the Attorney General would be required to publish a report containing a plan to enforce the law, a description of foreign efforts to use deep fake technology to impact election and policy debates in the U.S. and abroad, a description of the impact of sexual deep fakes on women and marginalized communities, and official guidance to Federal prosecutors.  In addition, the bill would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish a “Deep Fakes Task Force” to combat the national security implications of deep fakes, research and develop technologies to detect, counter, and distinguish deep fakes from actual events, and work with the private sector on this issue.

The bill would not serve as a defense against, preempt, or limit any Federal, State, local, or territorial laws on deep fakes or related content. Producers will still be able to seek other legal remedies against those individuals that use their copyrighted content without authorization to create deep fakes. Those individuals falsely depicted in deep fakes would still be able to seek other legal remedies against those individuals that use their likeness in deep fakes including privacy, defamation, false light, and unauthorized use of likeness claims. Sites that host user generated content, potentially including deep fake material, would still be able to claim the defenses provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. However, some members of Congress have expressed their interest in amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to more directly address liability for deep fakes.

Future regulation of deep fake technology is still uncertain, as Congress struggles to sort out the numerous legal and constitutional issues generated by this content. While the adult industry continues to wrestle with the problems caused by deep fake porn, politicians seem interested in nipping the issue in the bud, before a deep fake costs one of them an election.

This post was co-authored by Lawrence Walters and Bobby Desmond, of Walters Law Group. Nothing herein is intended as legal advice.

Texas Embraces FOSTA

Over a year ago, Congress passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (“FOSTA”) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (“SESTA”) in a confused attempt at combatting sex trafficking, but instead endangered sex workers and censored private companies that were worried about newly-imposed civil and criminal liability. Now, states are getting in on the action by passing their own versions of the misguided law. These new laws will be used to come after platform operators for user-submitted content, to subject those platforms to the whims of state-level officials who are more often influenced by politics than the Department of Justice, and to put more pressure on those platforms to censor erotic media.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed a state version of FOSTAA hidden amongst four other bills related to reducing the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in the state, criminalizing “stash houses” that facilitate human trafficking, and increasing resources available to sexual assault survivors. These bills will take effect on September 1, 2019.

“I’m here to sign legislation that keeps Texas a national leader in cracking down on human trafficking, making Texas a hostile place for human traffickers, and providing protection to the victims of this heinous crime,” Gov. Abbott claimed. “It doesn’t matter what your politics are. It just matters what your commitment is. We are proud to make Texas synonymous with the word justice.”

Despite the Governor’s pronouncements, the Texas FOSTA law will not be effective at reducing sex trafficking or protecting victims. Instead, it will have the opposite effect. Like FOSTA, which caused huge amounts of erotic content to be removed from the internet, the law will encourage continued censorship of protected online expression. In addition, it will eliminate the crucial digital evidence often provided to law enforcement by online advertising networks used by traffickers. More of these platforms will shut down or move overseas – outside the reach of U.S. investigators. But worse still, the law will create increased danger for sex workers who will no longer have access to digital screening and security protections such as “bad date” lists and safety tips. The human cost imposed by FOSTA was recently detailed in an article published in Fordham Law Review, which concludes that the law “confines commercial sex to its most dangerous model.” This is particularly devastating for the estimated 79,000 young sex trafficking victims in Texas, many of whom are Latino or African American, according to estimates provided by the state’s Attorney General’s Office and a recent study by the University of Texas. Women of color are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted for sex work and forcing the activity back to the street will naturally increase the victimization.

Like the federal FOSTA/SESTA bills, the Texas version titled Senate Bill 20 creates criminal and civil liability by stripping online platforms and content providers of an over 20-year-old protection that effectively fostered innovation and guarded freedom of expression on the internet. Now, in addition to federal criminal and civil liability levied by FOSTA, online platforms and content providers will be exposed to potentially debilitating criminal and civil liability for prostitution and sex trafficking claims at the state level in Texas, unless they take onerous measures to find and remove users involved in this criminal activity. While such measures are hard to successfully implement for even the largest sites, startups and smaller platforms will have a particularly tough time complying with Senate Bill 20, as fledgling businesses do not have the financial resources necessary to employ costly artificial intelligence tools and/or a large team of moderators trained to hunt down anything vaguely resembling sex trafficking or prostitution on their platforms.

Importantly, Texas Senate Bill 20 targets not only illegal sex trafficking, but consensual sex work as well. Now, online platforms and content providers can be sued or prosecuted in state court in Texas, if their services were used by third parties to promote or facilitate prostitution. Consensual sex workers will be pushed away from the protections the internet provides and toward potentially violent and dangerous people on the streets. They face increased risk in customer interactions, now that their harm reduction tools have been removed from the internet in reaction to FOSTA. Such risks are now more prevalent. For example, there was a 170% spike in sex trafficking incidents reported in San Francisco as a result of FOSTA. Additionally, such risks are often more serious, and may include death. In fact, before FOSTA, Craigslist’s erotic services section helped reduce the female homicide rate by 17%, according to a recent study. More FOSTA-like prohibitions at the state level will exacerbate the damage already done by the federal law.

Similar to FOSTA, Article 3 of Senate Bill 20 regulates the “Online Promotion of Prostitution” by making it a criminal offense to own, manage, or operate an interactive computer service or information content provider with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution. Also, like FOSTA, the law broadly-defines these terms, but also adds new categories of targeted online intermediaries. An “interactive computer service” is any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables access to a computer server by multiple users, including a service or system that provides access to the Internet or a system operated or service offered by a library or educational institution. An “access software provider” is any provider of software or enabling tools that (1) filter, screen, allow, or disallow content, (2) select, analyze, or digest content, or (3) transmit, receive, display, forward, cache, search, subset, organize, reorganize, or translate content. An “information content provider” is any person or entity that is responsible for creating or developing information provided through the internet or any other interactive computer service. Essentially, just about any online service or content provider may be charged if its users promote or facilitate prostitution.

Article 3 of Senate Bill 20 creates new trafficking offenses such that a conviction may be obtained when a person knowingly:

  • Traffics another person with the intent that the trafficked person engage in forced labor or services;
  • Traffics another person and – through force, fraud, or coercion – causes the person to engage in prostitution, promotion of prostitution, or compelling prostitution;
  • Traffics a child with the intent that the trafficked child engage in forced labor or services;
  • Traffics a child and causes the child to engage in continuous sexual abuse, indecency, sexual assault, prostitution, promotion of prostitution, compelling prostitution, sexual performance, harmful employment, or possession or promotion of child pornography; or
  • Receives a benefit from participating in a venture that involves any of the above.

Article 3 of Senate Bill 20 also creates civil liability for damages arising from compelled prostitution when a defendant (1) compels prostitution of the victim, (2) knowingly or intentionally engages in promotion of prostitution, on or off line, that results in compelled prostitution of the victim, or (3) purchases an advertisement that the defendant knows or reasonably should know constitutes promotion of prostitution, and which results in compelled prostitution of the victim.

Other portions of the law will require the state to collect data on trafficking cases, implement a “media awareness campaign,” and develop recommendations to decrease demand. Significantly, the law also requires an examination of the presumed connections between trafficking and sexually-oriented businesses.

States like Texas have been anxious to pass laws like this; holding online intermediaries responsible for illegal activities of their users. However, until the passage of FOSTA, they faced an insurmountable hurdle in the form of Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act. FOSTA removed that hurdle, and effectively invited states to adopt legislation like the Texas bill. Now, the states need not wait for the Department of Justice to pursue websites that are believed to promote or facilitate consensual sex work. The floodgates of liability have been opened in Texas, and there is no longer any gatekeeper. Any state prosecutor looking to leverage the sex trafficking panic can use a law like the one passed by Texas to target online platforms. This will predictably result in a chilling effect on speech and continued censorship of erotic media, as platforms react by exterminating any content that may be considered risky.

While Texas may be the first state to enact its own version of FOSTA, it is unlikely that it will be the last to do so. Publishers and consumers of adult-oriented media will pay a price as online access becomes more burdensome. The real price will be paid by sex workers who will face increased hostility and violence now that their harm reduction tools have been criminalized. Other states considering these “mini-FOSTA” laws are encouraged to look carefully at the devastation caused by the federal version before making the same mistake.

This post was co-authored by Lawrence G. Walters, Esq., and Bobby Desmond, Esq., of Walters Law Group. Nothing in this post is intended as legal advice.

A Year with FOSTA

Are we having fun yet? FOSTA/SESTA (“FOSTA”) has been around for a full year now and has managed to wreak significant havoc on the Internet. Sold to Congress as a law to combat “sex trafficking,” FOSTA has instead endangered sex workers and forced massive online censorship by private companies fearing enhanced civil and criminal liability. Unless the law is struck down by the courts, things will get worse.

Early versions of the bill focused exclusively on amending Section 230 immunity, which broadly protects interactive computer services from claims based on user content. Congress decided that online intermediaries enjoyed too much protection when it came to sex trafficking, so it began looking at ways to carve out sex trafficking claims from the scope of the immunity. The proposed change was supposedly necessary to allow the government to take down, which had fended off claims by asserting Section 230 defenses for years. The idea of tinkering with Section 230 immunity was bad enough on its own, since it exposed online platforms to expansive liability for sex trafficking claims if they did not take sufficient action to root out users involved with this criminal activity. Eliminating this important legal protection creates significant problems for smaller platforms or startups, which cannot afford expensive artificial intelligence tools and an army of human moderators looking for anything that might resemble sex trafficking on their servers. The level of proof that might be required to hold an Internet intermediary responsible for sex trafficking offenses is not clear under FOSTA, so companies braced for potential exposure based on the slightest hint of abusive user posts.

But Congress was not content to focus solely on illegal sex trafficking. While they were at it, lawmakers figured they would tackle consensual sex work as well. This proposed addition to the bill was opposed by free speech groups, trafficking survivors, and the DOJ, itself.  Nevertheless, in late February 2018, the House Judiciary Committee approved an amendment to FOSTA which created a new federal prohibition on using an interactive computer service to promote or facilitate prostitution. The amendment did not bother to define the terms “promote” or “facilitate” or even “prostitution.” The bill, including the amendment dealing with consensual sex work, was pushed through the legislative process and signed into law on April 11, 2018. Now, online platforms could be sued or prosecuted in state or federal court, if their services were used by third parties to promote or facilitate prostitution. Congress had officially broken the Internet. Notably, however, was taken down by federal authorities in the weeks before FOSTA was signed, raising the obvious question whether the law was necessary in the first place.

In the immediate aftermath of FOSTA, killed its entire personals section, given the uncertain risks it now faced. Dozens of other websites went dark, including numerous sites that provided harm reduction information and “bad date” lists that sex workers used to keep themselves safe from abuse. Banks, payment processors, hosts, and other service providers began cancelling accounts of customers whose sites might be used to promote or facilitate prostitution. The undefined prohibitions included in FOSTA, along with the draconian prison sentences for violations, forced online service providers to steer far clear of any content or speech that may be related to prostitution. It is not hard to imagine the difficulty facing large Internet platforms who were suddenly forced to determine with certainty whether adult content posted by users might be associated with some definition of prostitution, in some geographic jurisdiction. The legal exposure and uncertainty proved to be too much for many companies to bear, resulting in a huge swath of protected speech being wiped from the Internet. Instead of directly prohibiting adult content, itself, the government incentivized online platform providers to do the dirty work.

Fast forward to Spring of 2019: Tumblr has removed all adult content, and Facebook prohibits virtually all discussion of sexual activity. Instagram demotes any sexually suggestive content, on the grounds it may be “inappropriate.” Countless smaller sites have disappeared, and many startups cancelled their plans due to the increased legal risks. Consensual sex workers are facing increased violence, as they are driven from the Internet onto the streets, and into the hands of dangerous people. Their online safety and harm reduction tools have been taken away by FOSTA, so they accept more risk in their customer interactions. A recent study showed that use of Craigslist’s erotic services section by sex workers resulted in a 17% decrease in female homicide rate – attributed primarily to the (previous) ability of sex workers to vet their clients and take their business indoors. Police tasked with the job of fighting actual sex trafficking have found their jobs much harder after the closure of sites like, which historically provided a treasure trove of information for trafficking investigations when subpoenaed. Ironically, San Francisco has reported a 170% spike in sex trafficking incidents as a result of FOSTA. This is to be expected, as even the DOJ said that FOSTA would make their job of prosecuting traffickers more difficult. A non-profit sex worker clinic noted that the law suddenly re-empowered a whole underclass of pimps and exploiters. In sum, FOSTA has sanitized the Internet of erotic speech, has increased trafficking, and has created a dangerous climate for sex workers.

Some lawmakers are even calling for new exemptions to Section 230, in response to alleged abuse of the protected status by online intermediaries. Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator Ron Wyden, and Senator Joe Manchin have all warned that Section 230 may be amended again, or eliminated, given the mounting political pressures in Congress. As a result, FOSTA may be only the beginning of a dangerous trend.

Despite this adversity, there have been some encouraging developments. The sex worker community has found its voice and become mobilized. Decriminalization of sex work is now part of the national debate. Democratic presidential candidates are being pressed to defend their views on FOSTA and sex work while campaigning. States are passing laws designed to protect underage trafficking victims from being charged as prostitutes. The media is finally discussing the negative impacts that can result from overly aggressive sex trafficking laws and investigations.

Notwithstanding some impassioned advocacy against the new law, Congress is not likely to repeal FOSTA. Just as most politicians found it impossible to oppose a law branded as “anti-sex trafficking,” they will find it equally impossible to support a repeal. Amendments to the law are theoretically possible, but significant damage has already been done. Speech has been silenced, and FOSTA actively chills online communication on the topic of human sexuality. However, some are fighting FOSTA in the courts. The Woodhull Freedom Foundation, the Internet Archive, Human Rights Watch, and others have mounted a constitutional challenge in Washington, D.C. The suit argues that FOSTA violates the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution, since it is overbroad, vague, and applies to conduct that occurred even before the law was passed. The case is currently on appeal to the D.C. Circuit, after an initial ruling that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to raise the constitutional issues. The plaintiffs have been supported by numerous advocacy groups such as Reddit, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Institute for Free Speech, as amici curiae in the appeal. The parties are hopeful, but the damage FOSTA has caused to the First Amendment is undeniable. The ethos of the Internet has changed in the course of a year. However, the courts have the power to fix this.

In 1996, Congress passed an equally dangerous law (the Communications Decency Act) which prohibited all “indecent” content on the Internet. Online freedom fighters quickly mobilized to fight that law under the iconic “Blue Ribbon Campaign.” The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that such a broad prohibition on erotic speech violated the First Amendment, despite its purported goal in protecting children from viewing adult materials. Some 20 years later, Congress made the same mistake, but dressed up this censorship effort as a law to combat sex trafficking. Censorship of protected speech is not a price that Americans should be willing to pay to achieve politically attractive goals. The government did not need FOSTA to seize, or to prosecute numerous other websites alleged to be directly involved with promoting prostitution. Existing federal law already supports those efforts. Over the last year, FOSTA has proved to be unnecessary, dangerous to sex workers, a hindrance to law enforcement, and an impediment to free speech.

Ultimately, FOSTA’s constitutionality will be tested in the courts – whether in the current legal challenge or some future case. For now, we must endure an Internet burdened by FOSTA while remaining hopeful that the law does not live to see its second birthday.