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Google spam proposal sparks partisan backlash in Washington

Democrats fear Google is caving to ‘bad-faith’ GOP criticism

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

After months of pressure from Republicans, Google has a new plan to keep campaign emails from being marked as spam, according to new documents obtained by The Verge.

Google’s plan, first reported by Axios, would allow for candidates, political party committees, and leadership political action committees to apply for a special “pilot program” that would make their messages exempt from Gmail’s spam detection systems. The idea was proposed to the Federal Elections Commission in a June 21st filing asking for the body’s approval.

Google spokesperson José Castañeda confirmed in a statement Tuesday that the company made the request to the FEC. He described the program as an opportunity to “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.”

While the pilot program would spare authorized campaign’s from Gmail’s algorithmic spam detection, users would receive a new notification asking if they would like to continue receiving the emails once they first hit their inbox.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) was the first Republican to suggest GOP campaign emails were being wrongly flagged as spam disproportionately to Democrats back in 2020. “My parents, who have a Gmail account, aren’t getting my campaign emails,” Steube told Google CEO Sundar Pichai during a high-profile tech executive hearing that year.

The issue was raised once again this past March after a North Carolina State University study found that Gmail was more likely to mark Republican emails as spam when compared to other email services, like Outlook. Responding to the study, Google argued that Gmail users were more likely to mark the Republican messages as spam themselves.

Trump’s campaign in particular has been accused of using spam-like tactics in its fundraising emails, like using misleading subject lines that read as messages from friends or family. Several emails have used subject lines like “automatic email fwd,” appearing to be an email bounceback notification.

Still, the study prompted Republican lawmakers, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), to introduce legislation that would ban Google and other email services from filtering campaign emails as spam. That bill was introduced shortly before Google sent its program proposal to the FEC last week.

“Fascinating timing,” McCarthy said in a Monday tweet. “Within hours, Google finally made a move to alter biased algorithms that filter political emails. Big Tech has proven itself a bad actor. Time to fight back.”

While Republican lawmakers and strategists are lauding Google’s new plan, Democrats are suggesting that the company made the move to appease Republicans.

“It’s sad that instead of simply stopping sending spam emails, Republicans engaged in a bad-faith pressure campaign — and it’s even more unfortunate that Google bought it,” Daniel Wessel, DNC deputy communications director, said in a statement to The Verge on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, congressional investigators on the January 6th Select Committee accused former president Donald Trump of scamming his base out of $250 million through his use of fundraising emails. In the weeks leading up to the riots at the Capitol, Trump’s campaign sent a deluge of emails asking voters to donate to his official “Election Defense Fund” to help Trump overturn the 2020 election. According to the House investigators, that fund never existed.

“The Democrats are criticizing Google this morning for addressing the political email inboxing issue. This should not be a partisan issue. We should all want equal treatment,” John Hall, president of Targeted Victory, a GOP digital strategy firm, said in a Tuesday tweet. “If the Dems are critical of that idea, it means they know they are getting preferential treatment.”