Google's Plan to Nix Spam Filters on Political Emails Approved

The Federal Election Commission greenlighted Google's controversial pilot program, which could mean a flood of spam in your inbox this election cycle.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
Sergey Shulgin/Getty Images

You may soon see a lot more emails in your Gmail inbox asking for campaign contributions, thanks to a Thursday decision by the Federal Election Commission to let Google move forward on a pilot program to make it easier for political campaign emails to bypass spam filters. 

In a 4-1 vote, the FEC approved an opinion stating that Google's plan wouldn't violate federal election laws, which prohibit companies from giving nonmonetary contributions. One Democrat opposed the opinion and another abstained from voting. 

The way the pilot program will work is that emails from campaigns registering with the FEC would be able to circumvent the spam filters Google has in place to tag emails as spam. Individual users would still be able to manually move and flag such emails as spam.

Google put forth the proposal in response to criticism from Republicans, who've cited a study published by North Carolina State University researchers in March that found Gmail sent 77% emails from Republican candidates to spam in 2020, while only 10% of Democratic candidate emails were marked as spam. Authors of the study have told The Washington Post that the report has been taken out of context. 

Google has denied any political bias in how it sorts email. 

"Just to reiterate, there is no current bias in the system and the way that the filters operate," Claire Rajan, the attorney representing Google before the FEC, said during the meeting. "Everything that Google does is on a nonpartisan basis. The products are not intended to discriminate against any candidate, any party or any speaker."

Google isn't a stranger to conservatives' accusations of political bias. Republicans have for years been claiming that the company and other big tech giants, like Facebook and Twitter, censor conservative voices, such as former President Donald Trump, on their platforms while giving liberal politicians a pass. The companies consistently deny this.

Public opposition to Google's plan, which many people believe will result in a flood of unwanted spam in Gmail users' inboxes, has been fierce. The agency received more than 2,600 comments on Google's plan ahead of the vote, with many of those comments urging the FEC to reject the pilot program proposal.

But members of the FEC reiterated during the meeting that they weren't deciding on the question of whether it was a good idea for Google to open up its spam filters to political campaigns, but rather addressing the legal question of whether Google's pilot program would violate federal election law by providing a political contribution to campaigns by allowing them to more easily reach potential donors. 

While the majority of the FEC agreed that the Google plan "would not result in the making of a prohibited in-kind contribution," two Democrats on the commission disagreed and issued a separate draft opinion late Wednesday arguing that the plan should be rejected. Their draft, which was voted down, argued that the pilot program amounted to an illegal contribution to a political campaign, since it wasn't open to all groups and would allow only "certain political committees" to circumvent the spam filters. 

Still, the one Democrat who voted in favor of allowing Google's pilot program to move forward, Vice Chair Dara Lindenbaum, said she reluctantly voted in favor of the proposal because she believes "the law and the Commission regulations and precedents permit this." She also added that she didn't want to "hamstring innovation" and that she hoped Google's efforts would ultimately "reduce and not expand spam and increase best practices for bulk senders."

With midterm election campaigns gearing up ahead of the November election, Gmail users will likely notice the change. Google said it expects to have plenty of data from the pilot to evaluate whether it'll continue allowing these emails to bypass its filters and whether it should open up the filters for other types of emails from verified senders, such as emails from nonprofits and government agencies.