Gmail users might need to brace for a whole lot more annoying Republican messaging in the near future.
On Wednesday, the Federal Election Commission released a draft answer in favor of a proposed Google program that would keep Republicans’ campaign email blasts out of users’ spam folders. The carveout, first proposed by Google earlier this year under pressure from whiney Republican lawmakers, stands out as yet another example of Big Tech companies catering to conservatives to avoid the perception of conservative bias.
In its answer to Google, the FEC said the company’s proposed solution is indeed legal under the Federal Election Campaign Act and, “would not result in the making of a prohibited in-kind contribution,” something the proposal’s opponents had argued. Assuming the FEC votes to adopt this draft, emails from authorized candidate committees, political party committees, and leadership PACs would be allowed to bypass Gmail’s traditional spam filtering system. Political groups interested in getting their name added to the spam free list have to contact Google and provide their FEC credentials. After that, Google will reportedly work with the groups to ensure their emails are, “legitimate, securely configured, and authenticated,” the FEC draft notes.
Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
That determination marks a big win for Republicans, who’ve spent years attacking Google over claims it purposefully places conservative messaging in spam more often than their political opponents. Google’s accepted proposal also comes just in time to sidestep recently proposed Senate legislation which would make it “unlawful for an operator of an email service to use a filtering algorithm to apply a label to an email sent to an email account from a political campaign unless the owner or use of the account took action to apply such a label.”
To be clear, Gmail’s current spam filtering system isn’t limited to flagging content from any one particular political ideology. Instead, it largely relies on the past behavior of its users (i.e. what they mark as spam) to determine what shows up in a primary inbox. Research released earlier this year out of North Carolina State University’s computer science department determined campaign and fundraising emails from conservative groups and candidates were in fact-flagged as spam more frequently than Democratic messaging in the lead-up to the election, however, the researchers noted this wasn’t necessarily the product of political bias on Google’s end, but rather based on the Gmail algorithm’s interpretation of what content users previously labeled as spam.
If you’ve ever had the unfortunate privilege of coming across the layout, design, and ALL CAPS nature of a Trump campaign email, then you’re likely all too familiar with the spam-seeming qualities of these emails it’s not all that difficult to see how it could be confused with some spammer or low effort online scam.
Though Republican campaigners will walk away happy with the FEC’s decision, the Gmail proposal has plenty of detractors as well. As Axios notes, hundreds of public comments fielded by the FEC prior to their decision were overwhelmingly critical of the political spam exceptions.
“This is a terrible idea that would open the floodgates to even more spammy and abusive political advertisements,” one complaint reportedly read. Another complaint said, “Google’s idea to allow unsolicited political email to bypass spam filtering has to be one of the most asinine ideas I’ve ever heard.”
If Google’s ultimate end goal is to totally dissuade Republican concerns of Big Tech social bias, they’re facing an uphill battle. Commentators, Fox News hosts, lawmakers, and even Donald Trump himself have spent years cramming the Big Tech conservative bias argument down voters’ throats with difficult-to-verify claims of mass account deletions, shadow banning, and other alleged cryptic behavior.
Those efforts appear to have struck a nerve with conservative voters. According to an April Morning Consult survey, more than half (51%) of Republican-identifying social media users say they don’t feel like they can freely express themselves on social media, compared to just 19% of Democrats. That same survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of conservative social media users through “censorship” online represents a “major threat.”