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Google gets the green light to flood US Gmail inboxes with political spam

Federal Election Commission votes to let Google allow campaign email through filters

The US Federal Election Commission on Thursday voted 4-1 to allow Google to create a program exempting qualified political email from Gmail spam filtering, despite emphatic objections from email users.

The ad giant floated its proposal [PDF] after Republicans claimed Gmail's spam filtering is biased against them, and the party's lawmakers introduced a bill called the Political Bias in Algorithm Sorting (BIAS) Emails Act to punish Big Tech.

Republicans seized upon an academic study [PDF] released in March to support their claims that Gmail is biased against them. The authors of the study, however, have insisted their study doesn't say that, and may prove the opposite. Google has challenged the study for supposed methodological flaws and a limited sample size.

Nonetheless, Republicans have managed to get Google to respond to their demands, echoing the political playbook during the Trump administration of claiming that Republican voices were being silenced by content moderation.

At the FEC hearing on Thursday, Google attorney Claire Rajan, from Allen & Overy, insisted Google's spam filtering algorithm is not politically biased and also denied that the company's proposed politician email spam exemption was the result of political pressure.

Rajan defended Google's now-approved program by suggesting it's simply part of the company's normal product development cycle.

"The purpose of asking for the pilot program is really that Google is constantly iterating and looking at ways to improve all of its products, including Gmail," said Rajan. "And it's looking to do that to enhance the user experience and to consider whether these modifications enhance or degrade the user experience."

Google might gain some insight into what email users think about the prospect of allowing political messages to bypass spam filters if it reviewed the comments submitted to the FEC in opposition to the idea.

Listen to the users

For example, among the 39 comments sent to the FEC in this file [PDF] dated August 3, every single message opposes Google's proposal. The comments look largely like this, but with more capital letters:

"This is a terrible idea. DO NOT approve this proposal. I don't care what political party is impacted."

Another tranche of 85 comments about Google's proposal in a file [PDF] dated August 8 is similarly unanimous in its resistance to the idea. Not one person in the selection of messages wants more political spam; every one of the comments is opposed, many vehemently.

Josh Nelson, CEO of Civic Shout, a petitioning service focused on progressive causes, condemned the FEC decision. "The FEC’s vote today to greenlight Google’s plan was misguided and deeply unfortunate," said Nelson told The Register. "Now the fight moves to Google."

"Google should be aware that if it decides to move forward with its ridiculous and wildly unpopular plan to allow political campaigns to send spam email without consequence, it will face unprecedented backlash from its users, who overwhelmingly do not want this change to happen."

In a letter [PDF] to the FEC, Nelson argued that Google's proposal amounts to an in-kind contribution to Republican campaigns and rewards "disingenuous claims of Big Tech bias."

FEC staff last week issued an advisory opinion [PDF] finding that Google's program would not amount to an in-kind contribution.

Nelson said 15,000 people signed a petition at Civic Shout urging the FEC to reject Google's proposal.

"Google is doing this in direct response to disingenuous Republican claims that the company is biased, in a blatant attempt to ward off legislation regulating their service," Nelson told The Register. "There's zero chance Gmail would be doing this if Republicans hadn't spent the past five months pressuring them to do so." ®

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