Google gets green light to exempt campaign emails from spam detection

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The Federal Election Commission informed Google on Thursday that a proposed pilot program allowing political campaigns to evade automated spam detection would not violate federal campaign finance law.

The vote on the six-member body, which is split evenly by party, was four in favor and one against, with one abstention. A Democrat joined the three Republicans on the panel in endorsing the plan. Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democrat, voted against it, telling Google that such a program would represent a prohibited in-kind contribution. FEC Vice President Shana Broussard, also a Democrat, abstained.

The regulator’s bipartisan approval clears the way for Google to implement the program, which would turn off Gmail’s regular spam filters for participating candidates and other political committees, leaving individual users to manually flag spam emails. The pilot program, for everything FEC-registered sender whose emails do not contain illegal content or other material prohibited by Gmail’s terms of service, will likely last about six months, although the timing of its implementation has not not immediately clear.

“We appreciate the FEC’s prompt review of our application and will reflect on the positive and negative comments received during the public comment period,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said. “Our goal during this pilot program is to evaluate other ways to address the concerns of bulk senders, while giving users clear controls over their inboxes to minimize unwanted emails. We will continue monitor feedback as the pilot rolls out to ensure it meets its objectives.

The company sought FEC approval for the program following a months-long pressure campaign by the GOP, which accused Google of unfairly filtering its emails. Republican lawmakers and policymakers have drawn inspiration from a march study published by researchers at North Carolina State University who found that Gmail spammed 77% of right-wing candidate emails in 2020, compared to 10% of left-wing candidate emails.

Google disputed the study, saying it relied on a small sample and old data without considering candidates who used the recommended tools when sending mass emails. People familiar with the company’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak for the record, said Google was scapegoated by Republican consultants seeking to reject responsibility for poor fundraising caused by outdated lists and recipients. who are tired of constant calls, especially from entities that have rented or purchased email addresses.

GOP online fundraising has declined in recent months, falling about 11% in the second quarter of the year, compared to the first, according to federal filings from WinRed, the leading donation processing portal for Republicans.

Google defended its spam filters – which it says are effective at blocking more than 99.9% of spam, phishing and malware – but decided to modify them for political committees anyway. The FEC-approved advisory opinion found that the proposed program would “serve Google’s business interests by protecting its brand reputation and gaining valuable insights into how to improve its product.”

The proposed program did not appease Republicans. Last week, the Republican National Senate Committee, the campaign arm of the Republican caucus, asked lawmakers to sign a letter calling the proposed pilot program “unacceptable,” according to a draft obtained by The Washington Post.

“It’s coming too late and it’s too risky for campaigns,” says the draft letter, which has not yet been forwarded to Google, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. deal with non-public communications.

A Google lawyer, Claire Rajan, told commissioners ahead of Thursday’s vote that the program was designed for business purposes, not to influence an election. And, in response to a question from Sean Cooksey, a Republican commissioner, about the suggestion that the pilot program was “actually set up in response to criticism from members of a political party,” Rajan said Google was getting feedback from a range of voices as he pursues “product improvement”.

Broussard asked if improving the product involved taking into account the views of users, thousands of whom wrote to the FEC to oppose the proposed program. The commissioners said Google’s request prompted a record number of public comments, almost all of them asking the FEC to deny Google. Rajan said the comments reflect that “people don’t like spam.”

James E. Trainor III, a Republican commissioner, appeared to endorse the program as a cover against allegations of bias in Gmail’s existing spam technology. “Isn’t it true that by putting this pilot program in place, Google is actually making a business decision to ensure that they are completely unbiased…?” He asked. Rajan said the company made the decision to remain unbiased “a long time ago”.

Weintraub, the only commissioner who voted against the proposed scheme, asked Rajan to say that Gmail’s current filters treat political email the same way they treat all other communications, which she said. do. The Democrat went on to say that he sounded the alarm that Google would only offer a free program to political committees. “It sounds like the classic definition of an in-kind contribution,” she said.

Her fellow Democrat who endorsed the draft opinion reluctantly said so.

“I don’t want to, and it’s for the same reasons all commentators don’t want to,” said Dara Lindenbaum, who was sworn in this month. “But I think the law and the Commission’s regulations and the Commission’s precedents allow it. I also don’t want to hamper innovation and pilot programs.


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