Jul 14, 2022 - Technology

Leave campaign emails in spam, FEC commenters demand

Illustration of an envelope with a notifications dot that switches from a donkey to an elephant.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The Federal Election Commission has received hundreds of public comments, virtually all negative, on a Google pilot program that would protect campaign emails from being automatically filtered as spam.

Driving the news: Per an Axios review of hundreds of comments submitted to the FEC, people hate Google's idea, which the company introduced to ease tensions with conservatives who argue their political emails are unfairly flagged for spam by Gmail filters.

The big picture: Conservatives' effort to shield their political speech from spam filtering is brushing up against something Americans hate: overflowing inboxes filled with messages from people they don't know, many begging for money.

  • The comments suggest that people already feel inundated by political campaigns via phone calls and mailers, and want to keep filtering their email email inboxes.
  • Under Google's plan, certain incoming campaign emails, if registered with the pilot program, would automatically go to users' inboxes. Those flagged for spam would pop up a note to users, asking them whether to banish it to their spam folder.

Here's a sampling of some of the comments submitted to the FEC (which just extended the deadline to August 5 due to high interest, per a tweet from FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub):

  • "Absolutely not. This is a terrible idea that would open the floodgates to even more spammy and abusive political advertisements. No."
  • "I’m not sure what Google’s goal is with requesting permission for this hair-brained scheme, but I can assure you that it is not something that is desired by us, the people who receive email through Gmail."
  • "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 of. Such email is certainly spam, and needs to be treated as such."
  • "To say that that I have a low opinion of this idea would be understatement taken to an extreme. Please reject this exemption."
  • "I will quit email altogether if un-blockable political emails enter my inbox and turn the experience into social media. My mental health is at stake."

Context: Last month, Google asked the Federal Election Commission to greenlight a program that could keep campaign emails from ending up in spam folders, according to a filing obtained by Axios.

  • The issue is before the FEC because Google has asked the commission whether a program like the one it has proposed would have to be treated as a prohibited in-kind donation to campaigns.

Republicans have been arguing that their campaign emails end up in spam, especially in Google's Gmail, more often that Democrats', citing findings from a North Carolina State University study its own authors said have been misrepresented.

  • Republican leadership introduced a bill last month that would require platforms to share how their filtering techniques work and make it illegal to put campaign emails into spam unless a user asks.

What they're saying: “We want Gmail to provide a great experience for all of our users, including minimizing unwanted email, and we do not filter emails based on political affiliation," Google spokesperson José Castañeda told Axios.

  • "We recently asked the FEC to authorize a pilot program that may 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. We look forward to exploring new ways to provide the best possible Gmail experience."
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