On Thursday, the Federal Election Commission approved a new proposal from Google to keep campaign emails from being marked as spam.
Google’s plan, first reported by Axios in June, would allow for candidates, political party committees, and leadership political action committees to apply for the program that would make their messages exempt from Gmail’s spam detection systems. While Google did not need the FEC to approve the plan before rolling it out, it sought a vote earlier this summer to ensure the program wasn’t at risk of breaking current election regulations. In its Thursday ruling, the FEC confirmed that Google’s plan was legal.
“I have a hard time getting around the fact that this is a unique benefit offered to political committees, and only political committees,” commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub said during the FEC’s Thursday open meeting. Because of the program’s exclusivity, Weintraub likened it to Google offering its own “in-kind” contribution to political groups.
Google announced its political filtering plans shortly after a recent study found that the company was disproportionately flagging Republican fundraising emails as spam when compared to those of Democratic lawmakers and candidates. The study enraged the GOP and inspired a flurry of critical statements and an invitation for Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer, to explain the company’s filtering decisions in a private meeting on Capitol Hill.
“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,” José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson, said in a statement to The Verge on Thursday. “We will continue to monitor feedback as the pilot rolls out to ensure it is meeting its goals.”
Despite offering the proposal as a concession, Google took issue with the study’s findings, claiming that researchers examined a small sample size of emails and didn’t take into consideration whether campaigns used the appropriate bulk emailing tools already provided within the service.
But Google’s explanations couldn’t change the minds of Republicans who are struggling to meet their online fundraising goals this cycle. The New York Times reported last month that the total amount donated to GOP entities and federal campaigns fell by more than 12 percent in the second quarter when compared to the first quarter. The drop is highly unusual, especially as small-dollar donations traditionally increase as elections approach.
That fundraising decline combined with the controversial filtering study roused Republicans into a frenzy over the summer. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and nearly two dozen other Republicans put out a bill that would ban email providers like Google from algorithmically sorting federal campaign emails. In a draft memo obtained by The Washington Post earlier this month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee argued that “Google and its algorithms have handed a distinct advantage to Democrat fundraising efforts, resulting in Republicans raising millions of dollars less than they should.”
Once Google reached out to the FEC asking to issue a decision on its legality, the commission opened the program up for public comment. Nearly all of the hundreds of comments filed with the commission were negative. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) argued that Google’s proposal would be a boon for Republicans and open Gmail up to “abusive fundraising tactics.”
“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, told The Verge in June.
Former President Donald Trump’s campaigns have come under fire for using spammy tactics in its fundraising emails, often using misleading subject lines or mimicking conversations voters might have with friends and family over the internet. On Tuesday, Republican candidate for US Senate in Pennsylvania Dr. Mehmet Oz came under fire for sending out a campaign fundraising email to supporters with the subject line “FBI RAID – BREAKING INFORMATION” only hours after the FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home earlier in the week.
With the FEC’s Thursday decision, Google will soon allow for campaigns like Oz’s to apply for the program and ensure that their emails, despite using spam-like methods and language, won’t be filtered out of a user’s inbox.
Updated August 11th, 2022 at 12:17PM ET: Included a statement from Google.