Google Can Alter Spam Filter for Political Emails, FEC Decides

  • Commission allows company to test Gmail program
  • Comes after GOP complaints of lopsided filtering

Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.

Gmail users could see more political ads in their main inboxes after federal regulators approved a request to alter its spam filtering.

The vote Thursday by the Federal Election Commission allows Alphabet Inc.’s Google to create a program that helps ensure political messaging isn’t automatically filtered and puts more onus on users to manually filter the email.

Democrat Dara Lindenbaum joined three Republican commissioners on the six-member panel to approve Google’s request, saying it passed legal muster because it would affect both parties’ messages equally.

“I don’t want to” vote for approval, Lindenbaum said. “But I think the law and regulations and commission precedents allow this.”

Google requested an advisory opinion from the commission on its plans to create a “pilot program” to “rely on direct feedback from each user” to decide which political messages to mark as spam or unsubscribe from individual political mailing lists.

The approval came despite opposition from thousands of public commenters, including the Democratic National Committee, asking that the filter be left as is. The bulk emails sent by program participants, such as campaigns, would likely result in many more unwanted emails crowding inboxes, according to the comments.

Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg
The FEC approved an advisory request from Google to create a pilot program that would give Gmail users more control over which political messages are filtered into their spam folders.

Political Pressure

The FEC’s other two Democrats, Ellen Weintraub and Shana Broussard, didn’t support the request. During the meeting, they quizzed Google attorney Claire Rajan on whether the company was responding to political pressure from Republicans.

Google said it would consider the positive and negative feedback reactions it received as part of the FEC’s public comment process.

“Our goal during this pilot program is to assess alternative ways of addressing concerns from bulk senders, while giving users clear controls over their inboxes to minimize unwanted email,” said Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda in a written statement.

Google has been under increased pressure since a study found nearly 70% of Republican and GOP-aligned groups’ emails were filtered as spam, compared to less than 10% of Democratic messages. Google’s email system has 1.5 billion users and dominates 75% of the market.

Republicans have said the difference is the result of deliberate political bias.

“The evidence suggests that some actors in the tech industry display an undeniable pattern of ideological bias against conservatives,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said when Republicans introduced legislation to curb filtering of political emails.

Democrats say they’re more careful to create messages that aren’t seen by users and algorithms as spam. DNC Executive Director Sam Cornale told the FEC in a comment letter that Google’s plan would encourage deceptive GOP practices, including pre-checked boxes that trick donors into recurring contributions, false promises to match donations, and false sweepstakes prizes.

More than 2,700 commenters opposed Google’s request or the draft response to grant it, according to commission spokeswoman Judith Ingram. One commenter supported suspending spam filters, and eight were neutral.

“If the FEC signs off on Gmail’s proposal, it will open the floodgates to a drastic increase in scammy fundraising emails from countless political campaigns you have no interest in hearing from,” said a petition signed by more than 15,000 commenters and forwarded to the commission by Josh Nelson, chief executive of the liberal advocacy platform Civic Shout.

Some Republicans said Google’s plans didn’t go far enough to correct bias because they allowed users to easily opt out of receiving political emails. “Google’s proposed solution does nothing to fix their biases and instead allows Google to further put its finger on the scale,” said Michael McAdams, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bloombergindustry.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

Stay informed with more news like this – from the largest team of reporters on Capitol Hill – subscribe to Bloomberg Government today. Learn more.

Top