FEC says Google can let political campaigns dodge Gmail's spam filters

The DNC says a pilot project could subject users to 'abusive fundraising tactics.'

·2 min read
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The Federal Elections Commission has rubber stamped a proposal from Google that could make it easier for political campaigns to skirt email spam filters. Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve a Gmail pilot, agreeing with Google that the program wouldn't run afoul of election rules, as The Washington Post reports.

In June, Google asked the FEC to review a plan that would enable emails from "authorized candidate committees, political party committees and leadership political action committees registered with the FEC" to bypass spam filters — as long as they don't break Gmail rules on illegal content, malware and phishing. The FEC opened the proposal for comment and, as The Verge notes, almost all of the feedback from the public was negative. The Democratic National Committee, for one, claimed the program would benefit Republicans and subject Gmail users to “abusive fundraising tactics.”

At the FEC's open meeting on Thursday, Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub voiced concerns about the program only being available to political committees. “That to me raises all sorts of alarm bells because that sounds like the classic definition of an in-kind contribution,” she said.

Currently, campaign emails often skip Gmail's inbox precisely because many other users mark them as spam. If Google decides to forge ahead with the project, it will notify users the first time they receive an email from a participating campaign. They'll be able to opt out of receiving those emails, and they'll always have the option of manually marking them as spam.

Google floated the pilot program following pressure from Republicans, who accused the company of censoring fundraising emails. A study published earlier this year indicated that Gmail was significantly more likely to mark GOP emails as spam during the 2020 election campaign (Yahoo and Outlook, meanwhile, disproportionately flagged Democratic messages as spam). In addition, Republicans saw campaign contributions from small donors to their party fall by over 12 percent between the first and second quarters of the year, according to one analysis. GOP leaders introduced a bill in June that seeks to ban email platforms from automatically routing campaign messages to spam folders.

"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," Google spokesperson José Castañeda told the Post, noting that the company “will continue to monitor feedback as the pilot rolls out to ensure it is meeting its goals.