Illinois lawmakers consider measure to criminalize AI-generated child porn

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois legislators have been looking at how state law needs to adapt to address the advent of artificial intelligence and its influence on society, and on Tuesday, the discussion focused on legislation related to Internet sex crimes against children.

At a House committee hearing, lawmakers debated a measure that would prohibit the use of AI technology to create child pornography, regardless of whether it involved real children or fake images that evoke obscene imagery.

The measure, which ultimately passed through the House Judiciary Criminal Committee, is being pushed by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. Its main sponsor is state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a Glenview Democrat who has been working on ways to have state law keep up with the new technology.

During the hearing, Gong-Gershowitz said this AI content is “quickly” reaching a point of being indiscernible from authentic child pornography images.

“The mass creation of AI-generated child pornography material will only make it more difficult for law enforcement to stop child trafficking,” she told the panel. “Law enforcement will not only have to deal with the sheer volume of … content, but also identifying that the content depicts a real child or is the sole creation of AI. And while no real child may have been harmed at the AI-generated content, it normalizes abusive behavior, namely when it purports to depict sexual abuse of a child.”

David Haslett, chief of the attorney general’s office’s high-tech crimes bureau, testified that AI could make it more difficult for law enforcement to bring charges of child pornography because of confusion over whether images were real or computer-generated.

“How is the system going to deal with this when we cannot prove that it is a real child because it’s not?” Haslett asked. “We’re trying to be proactive about this so that when AI does become indistinguishable from a real product, that it does not flood the market and present this material being everywhere and then we can’t stop it.”

The measure amends the state’s child pornography law to include depictions of children under 18 “who by manipulation, creation, or modification, appears to be engaged in sexual activity.” It defines an “obscene depiction” as a visual representation that includes an image, video, computer-generated image or video, “whether made, produced, or altered by electronic, mechanical, or other means.”

Receiving or accessing such images could result in a prison term of up to five years for a first offense. Producing or reproducing such images could lead to a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

During Tuesday’s debate, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, as well as a couple of progressive Democrats on the panel, expressed concerns that the penalties for computer-generated depictions of pornographic images involving children should not be put on the same level as images involving an identifiable human victim.

“The real objection here is that the penalties for that offense, for the depiction of a child that is not real, mirror, in many ways, the existing penalties for the offense of child pornography, which does involve those very real, very serious types of harm to real human beings who are victims,” said Ben Ruddell, director of criminal justice policy for the ACLU of Illinois. “And we don’t believe that that’s proportionate to punish one as though it’s just the same as the other.”

State Rep. Will Guzzardi, a Chicago Democrat, raised the same concern while acknowledging that “this is a new area that we’re all trying to figure out how to address in law.”

“The severity of the punishment that we have in statute is appropriate for situations where there’s sexual harm done to a child, right? That’s why these sentences are very serious in our statute,” Guzzardi said. “And I think when a computer creates a picture of something very vulgar and upsetting, I don’t think that that causes the same degree of harm, societally or individually, as a photograph of a child being sexually abused.”

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, another Chicago Democrat, questioned the need for the law, saying she was confident law enforcement will continue to be able to distinguish actual images from those generated through AI.

“There are digital footprints in everything that we do and I believe that there would be an ability to distinguish the two,” Cassidy said.

Gong-Gershowitz maintained that even if Cassidy is correct, AI-generated child pornography could cause harm that includes normalizing the sexual abuse of children.

Guzzardi and Cassidy both ended up voting for the bill, which passed by a 13-0 vote, though Cassidy said she’s “going to reserve my vote on the floor.”

After Tuesday’s hearing, Raoul issued a statement indicating the immediacy of addressing the challenges posed by AI-altered images in child pornography.

“Any and all child exploitation can be a devastating crime that leaves survivors and their families dealing with a lifetime of trauma,” Raoul said. “We must hold predators accountable so survivors can receive justice to support their healing.”