FEC Approves Google’s Plan to Exempt Campaign Emails From Spam Filters

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The pilot program stems in part from a March study that found Google filters were far more likely to mark right-wing campaign emails as spam than left-wing ones.

The Federal Election Commission voted 4-1 on Thursday to allow Google to proceed with a pilot program that would keep emails from eligible campaigns out of spam folders, saying that the proposal did not represent a prohibited in-kind contribution to political candidates or committees. 

Google said in its July request to the FEC that, under the proposed pilot program, it would remove Gmail’s spam filters from emails sent by “authorized candidate committees, political party committees and leadership political action committees” that are registered with the FEC. Email recipients would have to manually unsubscribe from the emails, or mark them as spam in their own accounts. 

Google proposed the program after Republican lawmakers earlier this year claimed that the company’s spam filters were biased against conservative candidates. GOP policymakers, in particular, cited a March study from North Carolina State University, which found that Google was far more likely to mark campaign emails from right-wing candidates as spam than emails from left-wing candidates. 

The FEC’s vote allowing Google to move forward with the program came after the commission released a draft opinion last week, saying that the program did not violate federal campaign finance laws. On the eve of the hearing, however, the FEC issued another draft opinion saying that approving “the provision of a free service by a corporation to a group consisting solely of political committees is without precedent in prior commission opinions.” The commission’s staff noted on the opinion that they were “asked to place this draft on the agenda by one or more commissioners.”

The last-minute hesitancy of some commissioners appeared to partially stem from public opposition to Google’s proposal. As of the FEC meeting, the commission received over 2,700 public comments in response to Google’s proposed program, with the overwhelming majority of commenters opposed to the idea of more political emails reaching their inboxes. Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said it was “a record-setting number of comments,” and added that “we had one, maybe two comments that thought it was a good idea.”

Weintraub, the only dissenting commissioner, said during the meeting that she had “a hard time getting around the fact that this is a unique benefit offered to political committees, and only to political committees.” Commissioner Shana Broussard also abstained from the vote. 

Commissioner Dara Lindenbaum expressed some reluctance in voting for the pilot, saying that she agreed with many of the commenters’ concerns, but added that, “I think the law and commissioner regulations and commission precedent permits this.” 

Despite Google’s effort to direct more political campaign emails to users’ inboxes, Democratic and Republican political organizations have also voiced opposition to the program. The Washington Post previously reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee was soliciting signatures from GOP senators for a letter calling the pilot “unacceptable.” And Sam Cornale, the executive director of the Democratic National Committee, wrote in a public comment to the FEC that candidates and committees who participate in the program “will be incentivized to employ the abusive fundraising tactics that Google’s spam filters would have otherwise caught.” 

A spokesperson for Google, José Castañeda, told Nextgov that the company “will reflect on the positive and negative feedback received during the public comment period.” 

“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,” Castañeda added. “We will continue to monitor feedback as the pilot rolls out to ensure it is meeting its goals.”