Lawmakers call out tech industry lobbying on AI regulation

Tech reps packed a virtual news conference featuring legislators from across the country.
Connecticut state Sen. James Maroney (D) (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Senate Democrats)

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers from across the country is urging technology companies and industry groups not to try to thwart artificial intelligence regulation.

In a rare instance of legislators publicly calling out lobbying efforts, a diverse group from Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Texas and Virginia said in a news conference Thursday that their constituents want them to place guardrails on the fast-moving technology and warned that efforts to block regulation would not be well received.

“When people come with good faith suggestions, we work with them,” said Connecticut Sen. James Maroney (D), a leader in state AI efforts who organized the virtual event. “But coming in and saying ‘delete sections one to 18 of a bill’ is not good faith.”

Maroney, who is working to pass an omnibus AI regulation bill, was referring to an email, shared with Pluribus News, that he received last week from a lobbyist for the Consumer Technology Association suggesting a “significant scale down” of his bill. Attached to the email was CTA’s suggested bill language, which retained only one section of Maroney’s bill, which addresses election deepfakes.

CTA, a trade group that represents the consumer electronics industry, is running ads in Connecticut opposing Maroney’s bill. It is pushing for Congress to pass uniform regulations for the whole country, saying a patchwork of laws stifles smaller companies creating new products and services.

“We encourage state policymakers and Congress to work together to advance bipartisan legislation that protects consumers and provides clear guidelines for U.S. innovators, ensuring they stay at the forefront of the AI revolution,” Doug Johnson, vice president of emerging technology policy at CTA, said in a statement. “Well-meaning and disparate state legislation is harmful to U.S. competitiveness in AI.”

The event, held via Zoom, was intended for reporters, but Maroney said lobbyists obtained the link and filled the virtual room to capacity. The audience included representatives from the banking, telecommunications, automotive and tech industries, among others. Representatives of trade groups and lobbying firms also attended.

The panel of lawmakers featured Maroney, Texas Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R), Colorado Senate Majority Leader Robert Rodriguez (D), Alaska Sen. Shelley Hughes (R), Virginia Del. Michelle Maldonado (D) and North Carolina Rep. Zack Hawkins (D). Georgia Rep. Todd Jones (R) was also scheduled to attend but could not access the packed Zoom room, according to Maroney.

The cohort of tech-focused lawmakers got to know each other through their previous work on cybersecurity, data privacy and participation in the National Conference of State Legislature’s AI task force. The bipartisan nature of their work on tech policy offers a stark contrast to the red state-blue state divide that exists on many other issues.

“There’s a bipartisan effort, a multi-state effort, a bicameral effort to go and to work on commonsense regulatory reform for artificial intelligence,” said Capriglione, who last year passed legislation to create a state Artificial Intelligence Advisory Council and chairs a new House select committee on AI.

Capriglione said he is “incredibly dismayed” that several of the companies that told him last year they wanted state-level AI regulation “are now pushing back and fighting against that.”

“Everyone on this call wants AI to be innovative … but at the same time we all see the risks without having these guardrails in place,” Capriglione said. “The point of the frameworks that we’ve created is to protect the good actors and to punish bad actors.”

Capriglione said AI regulation will be a priority of the Texas legislature when it meets again in 2025.

Capriglione and Virginia’s Maldonado both advised business lobbyists not to ask for their industry or company category to be carved out from regulation. Maldonado said that was something she experienced earlier this year as the sponsor of AI legislation in Virginia.

“That was not helpful,” Maldonado said.

Hughes, the Alaska senator, is sponsoring legislation this year to address election deepfakes and government use of AI. She said state legislatures are taking the lead on regulating AI because they are nimbler than Congress.

“It is time for us to step up and states are beginning to do that and for me a big motivation is reassurance and confidence of the public,” Hughes said, adding that it would be worse for industry to not have regulations and “for things to go awry.”

The lawmakers acknowledged that AI is a new frontier and that there is not a lot of precedent for regulating the technology. They urged industry representatives to trust the process and said, in Hughes’s words, “the sky is not falling.”

Among those who listened in on the press conference was David Edmonson, senior vice president for state policy at TechNet. In a statement, Edmonson said his trade group is meeting with bill sponsors “to ensure any legislation addresses AI’s risk while allowing innovation to flourish.”

Matthew Scherer, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, also attended. CDT is encouraging lawmakers, including Maroney, to strengthen their AI regulations.

“It’s great to see so many lawmakers across the country engaged on these issues and seeing the need for regulation,” Scherer said in an email. “It was also good to hear several lawmakers recognize … that a lot of the pushback against the bills is from companies and industries saying, ‘Please don’t regulate us at all,’ and that such feedback is not constructive.”