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Google said to be taking steps to keep political campaign emails out of Gmail spam bin

Just after Big Tech comes under fire for left and right-leaning message filters

Google has reportedly asked the US Federal Election Commission for its blessing to exempt political campaign solicitations from spam filtering.

The elections watchdog declined to confirm receiving the supposed Google filing, obtained by Axios, though a spokesperson said the FEC can be expected to publish an advisory opinion upon review if Google made such a submission.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. If the web giant's alleged plan gets approved, political campaign emails that aren't deemed malicious or illegal will arrive in Gmail users' inboxes with a notice asking recipients to approve continued delivery.

The reason Google appears to have done so is that earlier this month, 27 Republicans introduced a bill called the Political Bias in Algorithm Sorting (BIAS) Emails Act.

The proposed law aims to "hold Big Tech platforms accountable for using biased algorithms that take control away from consumers and alter the way users are able to see emails from political campaigns," as US Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) put it.

This draft legislation, as it stands, would make it illegal for an email service provider to apply a filtering algorithm to email messages from an account from a political campaign unless the email recipient took action to apply the filter.

It would also require email service providers (cough, cough, Google) to provide quarterly transparency reports revealing details about filtering applied to Republican and Democratic campaign emails.

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The Republican-backed bill follows the release of a North Carolina State University research paper that found email service providers' spam filters exhibited political bias toward one party or another.

The report [PDF] – titled, A Peek into the Political Biases in Email Spam Filtering Algorithms During US Election 2020 – stated that Gmail marked more right-leaning messages as spam while Outlook and Yahoo marked more left-leaning messages as spam.

"Gmail marks a significantly higher percentage (67.6 percent) of emails from the right as spam compared to the emails from left (just 8.2 percent)," the report stated. "Outlook is unfriendly to all campaign emails, more unfriendly to the left than to the right. It marks a higher percentage of left (95.8%) emails as spam than those of right (75.4 percent). Yahoo marks 14.2 percent more left emails as spam than the right emails."

The academics said there's no reason to believe these biases have been introduced deliberately. Rather, they're the product of the design of spam filtering algorithms and feedback mechanisms used to adjust filtering decisions.

Their report does not address whether Gmail or other email services consider content quality (eg, excessive capitalization, divisive terminology, etc) in their spam determination calculations.

The authors argue that it's important for spam filtering mechanisms to be fair while conceding it's not an easy problem. Attempted adjustments, they say, may degrade filter efficacy and result in more unwanted emails.

Letting every single first-time campaign email through is certain to do that. ®

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