After years of grumbling from Republicans in Congress, Google has requested that the Federal Election Commission allow a pilot program in which political campaign emails would be exempt from spam filtering.
The new program would allow emails from “authorized candidate committees, political party committees and leadership political action committees registered with the FEC,” to bypass Gmail’s spam categorization system, the filing read. That is, as long as those messages don’t violate the platform’s other rules around phishing, malware, or illegal activity.
Google seems to be trying to get ahead of a proposed bill. South Dakota Sen. John Thune and 25 other Republican legislators introduced an act on June 16 aiming to make it “unlawful for an operator of an email service to use a filtering algorithm to apply a label to an email sent to an email account from a political campaign unless the owner or use of the account took action to apply such a label.”
Instead of being screened by Gmail’s spam filter, all qualifying political emails from would instead go directly to users’ inboxes. From there, users would get a “prominent” nudge to either keep receiving emails from the same sender, or to opt out, according to the filing.
The FEC filing was first obtained by Axios. In an emailed statement to Gizmodo, Google spokesperson, José Castañeda, confirmed the company’s FEC request and wrote:
We want Gmail to provide a great experience for all of our users, including minimizing unwanted email, but we do not filter emails based on political affiliation. We recently asked the FEC to authorize a pilot program that may help improve inboxing rates for political bulk senders and provide more transparency into email deliverability, while still letting users protect their inboxes by unsubscribing or labeling emails as spam. We look forward to exploring new ways to provide the best possible Gmail experience.
The pending pilot policy comes after years of contention between the company and Republicans in Congress over the alleged political bias of Gmail spam filters.
Back in 2020, Florida Rep. Greg Steube showed up at a congressional hearing about tech monopolies to complain that his parents weren’t seeing his campaign emails. “Suddenly, I get elected to Congress, and I’m now up here in Washington, D.C., and my parents, who have a Gmail account, aren’t getting my campaign emails,” Steube claimed. “Why is this only happening to Republicans?,” he asked.
More recently, a March study from North Carolina State University’s computer science department added fuel to the fire. The study researchers found that campaign and fundraising emails from conservative groups and candidates more frequently went to Gmail users’ spam folders in the lead up to the 2020 election than those from liberal or left-leaning sources. The researchers found the opposite trend among the inboxes of Yahoo and Outlook users.
GOP politicians, like Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, interpreted the study to mean that conservative campaigns were being intentionally and unfairly targeted by Google.
However, the researchers specifically wrote in that study that their observations don’t mean Google was intentionally poisoning its spam filter with politics. Instead, they suggested the observed bias could be the result of how Google and others weigh past user behavior in their analysis of what is and isn’t spam. In other words: conservative emails likely went to spam more often because Gmail users had previously marked similar emails from similar sources as spam.
Google has also repeatedly reaffirmed this. In May, the company’s chief legal officer, Kent Walker, met with republican senators and told them that there is no bias in how Gmail manages spam.
“Mail classifications automatically change to match users’ preferences and actions. For example, users can unmark spam, move messages to a different category, or switch categories on or off. Over time, classifications change according to these corrections,” said Google in an explanation of its classification system.
In another statement to Mashable, a Google spokesperson further said that, “political affiliation has absolutely no bearing on mail classifications in Gmail and we’ve debunked this suggestion, which has surfaced periodically from across the political spectrum, for many years.”
It’s also possible that right wing politicians have been hurting their own chances for main inbox exposure through spammy tactics. Donald Trump has even gotten flack from within his own party for his campaign’s hyper-aggressive, misleading fundraising emails. Yet, despite the above, conservative politicians have pushed forward with their anti-spam crusade.
Republican lawmakers have taken to Twitter to voice their support for the bill. “I’m working to hold Big Tech accountable,” tweeted Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst. Rep. Kevin McCarthy from California wrote, “Big Tech has proven itself a bad actor. Time to fight back.” Thune himself posted that Gmail spam filtering is, “unacceptable & anti-democratic.”
Google’s efforts may not be enough for republicans. “Consumers want a long-term transparent fix, which is what Senator Thune’s bill would provide,” a spokesperson for the senator told to the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, Democrats have a different view. “It’s sad that instead of simply stopping sending spam emails, Republicans engaged in a bad-faith pressure campaign,” said Daniel Wessel, a Democratic National Committee spokesperson, to the Post. “And it’s even more unfortunate that Google bought it.”