Jun 29, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP's Gmail feud escalates

A smartphone icon for Google's Gmail application.
A smart phone with the icons for the Google Gmail app is seen on the screen in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, on July 31, 2018. (S3studio via Getty Images)

An escalating dispute between national Republicans and technology giant Google threatens to bring political heat on the company and could spur significant changes in political email practices.

Driving the news: The Republican National Committee fired the latest shot on Wednesday, when chairwoman Ronna McDaniel claimed in a statement to Axios that Google has "systematically attacked" its digital program.

  • The RNC claims Google's Gmail, the nation's top email client, has been suppressing fundraising emails during strategically critical periods this year.
  • Google told Axios its spam filter is thoroughly apolitical, and that it's taking steps to ensure political messages aren't inadvertently flagged.

The details: The RNC shared internal data showing regular and dramatic increases in the number of its fundraising and voter-activation emails being sent to Gmail recipients' spam folder.

  • Ordinarily, the committee said, Gmail flags up to 10% of its emails as spam.
  • But it says during the final four days of every month since December 2021 — a crucial period for digital fundraising operations — that number has skyrocketed to 100% or close to it, even as the rate of emails marked as spam by recipients remains steady.
  • "These are emails that go to our most engaged, opt-in supporters without any increase in user complaints, changes to the content, email frequency or target audiences that could account for the suppression," McDaniel said.
  • The RNC said it's flagged the issue for Google, but that the company has not provided a plausible explanation.

What they're saying: Google did not address the RNC's specific complaints, but stressed, "we do not filter emails based on political affiliation."

  • "We recently asked the Federal Election Commission to advise us on a potential pilot for political bulk senders that would provide more transparency into email deliverability, while still letting users protect their inboxes by unsubscribing or labeling emails as spam,” said Google spokesperson José Castañeda in an emailed statement.
  • That pilot, first reported by Axios this week, would initially exempt political senders from Gmail's spam filter, while giving recipients more visible options to flag those messages as spam going forward.

The big picture: The back and forth comes amid intense Republican scrutiny of email services' treatment of political fundraising messages.

  • Members of House and Senate GOP leadership introduced legislation this month to more heavily regulate email clients' treatment of political messages.
  • The bills' sponsors cited a recent North Carolina State University study showing Gmail generally flagged more Republican emails as spam, while competitors Yahoo and Outlook were more likely to filter Democrats' messages.
  • The study's authors have said Gmail's Republican critics are cherry picking its findings.

The other side: Google and other email providers say any discrepancy in spam filtering is due to behavior by both senders and recipients.

  • Gmail adjusts its mail classifications according to recipients' past preferences. So if someone is flagging a particular sender's messages as spam, future messages are more likely to be flagged as well.
  • Other factors such as send frequency and the content of emails can also contribute to a message being flagged.
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