‘Taking A Sledgehammer’: Censorious California Could Crush America’s Latest Tech Revolution, Experts Say

California Democrats have launched an all-encompassing effort to clamp down on risks posed by artificial intelligence (AI), a move experts say would crush the booming industry.

There are more than 12 AI bills focused on countering what they perceive to be the most dangerous risks posed by the technology, including “misinformation” and “discrimination,” Politico reportedCalifornia could serve as a nationwide regulator and might stifle technological innovation across the country while potentially infringing upon free speech, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation. (RELATED: Pro-Censorship Megadonor’s Org Starts $30 Million ‘Inclusive’ AI Fund With White House)


“This is just another example of legislatures jumping the gun on AI,” Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, told the DCNF. “There’s so much focus on AI’s applications that the laws either miss the forests for the trees or become so sweeping that they will inevitably target protected speech. At this juncture, legislators should approach AI regulation with a surgical knife, but California is taking a sledgehammer towards it.”

California’s actions could cause America to fall behind China and other countries in the AI tech race, R Street Institute Senior Fellow Adam Thierer told the DCNF.

“California is, once again, looking to dictate policy for the United States, and if they get their way with AI, it will have devastating ramifications for algorithmic innovation in our nation at a time when competition with China and other countries is intensifying,” Thierer told the DCNF. “AI innovations are vulnerable to California’s threats because Congress is now so dysfunctional that it can’t even take basic steps to create a sensible national framework for technology policy … Congress is now MIA on AI, and California is about to fill the void with a lot of innovation-killing regulation.”

One of the state’s bills, AB 331 would make it illegal to use AI that engages in “algorithmic discrimination” in areas such as housing and employment, according to its text. Bay Area Democratic Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan introduced it in January but got stalled in May when tech lobbyists and some lawmakers opposed it, asserting the language was vague and that it would hurt California innovation, according to Bloomberg law.

“It’s concerning that in states like California, lawmakers are attempting to leverage the rapid advancement of this technology and the demand for policy solutions to push their censorship and social justice agenda,” Jake Denton, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation’s Tech Policy Center, told the DCNF. “Engaging in debates over censorship and bias will distract from the crucial issues that need immediate attention and risk derailing the progress towards strong AI policy … Lawmakers must resist the temptation to abuse the need for AI policy to advance their partisan agendas.”

California is a major hub for technology and AI in particular, making it a prime model for other Democrat-led states in crafting AI protections, according to Politico

“California’s regulatory actions can become a de facto federal policy either by being copied by other states or due to the significant requirements necessary for compliance,” Cato Institute Technology Policy Research Fellow Jennifer Huddleston told the DCNF. “It could deter innovators from launching products in California and instead turning towards more pro-innovation markets … More concerningly, however, it could prevent actions across the nation as it may not be possible to comply with an AI regulation only in California.”

Democratic California state Sen. Scott Wiener introduced SB-294 in February, which would regulate against dangers such as deepfakes and bioweapons, according to its text. Deepfakes are false but realistic-looking visual imitations, often of a real person that are becoming more widespread, leading federal lawmakers to raise concerns that they could enable financial fraud and intellectual property theft.

“Some of this is not futuristic,” Wiener told Politico. “These are risks that are with us right now and we’re way behind in addressing them.”

Another of the state’s bills, AB-972, makes it illegal to manipulate media to produce certain misleading content during elections, according to its text. California Gov. Gavin Newsom approved it in September 2022.

It covers editing media to the point it “would cause a reasonable person to have a fundamentally different understanding or impression of the expressive content of the image or audio or video recording than that person would have if the person were hearing or seeing the unaltered, original version,” the text explains.

“This is a new effort to control speech in the 2024 election,” technology trade group NetChoice’s Vice President & General Counsel Carl Szabo told the DCNF. “What we’re seeing is broad definitions with broad government powers, which would lead to broad bans on speech the party in power doesn’t like … This isn’t about protecting elections; it’s about protecting incumbent lawmakers from challengers.”

California’s SB-721 seeks to establish a working group to evaluate the “trustworthiness” of AI systems to work as designed and figure out ways to crack down on AI “misinformation campaigns,” according to its text. The state’s AB-302 mandates a review of how AI systems are combatting risks “including cybersecurity risk and the risk of inaccurate, unfairly discriminatory, or biased decisions, of the automated decision system,” according to its text; Newsom approved it in October.

There are even more AI bills on the way, according to Politico. Bauer-Kahan says lawmakers erred in the past by not strictly regulating the internet when it was new, and hopes they will not make the same mistakes with AI.

“I hope we’re learning lessons from the advent of the Internet, where we didn’t act in a regulatory fashion in the way we needed to,” Bauer-Kahan told Politico.

Safety should be the top priority with AI, but lawmakers should be careful, as “it’s too early in the life cycle of this technology” to come to conclusions about AI’s impacts, Newsom’s point person on AI Jason Elliott told Politico. California lawmakers appear to be more passionate about cracking down on the technology than Newsom.

In addition to setting regulations for the entire country, California’s upcoming laws could add significantly to Europe’s strict tech regulations, according to Politico. The European Union is also moving forward with an AI Act, which recently reached a turning point in negotiations for sweeping regulations for the technology, according to The New York Times.

“Fortunately, we’ve resisted following the EU approach to AI nationally,” senior economist at the Foundation for American Innovation Samuel Hammond told the DCNF. “Unfortunately, we’ve put a lot of our AI industry’s eggs in one basket — California — where the state politics aren’t exactly friendly to conservatives.”

Newsom’s office pointed the DCNF to a press release on the governor’s executive order, which attempts to balance the risks of the technology while staying innovative.

Wiener and Bauer-Kahan did not respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

Jason Cohen on December 16, 2023

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