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Google tries to assuage GOP on charges its email filter is ‘biased’

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Below: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urges Congress to protect women's sensitive data, and lawmakers unveil a bill targeting confidentiality agreements. First:

Google tries to assuage GOP on charges its email filter is ‘biased’

Since a March study found that Google’s Gmail service sent emails from conservative candidates to spam more often than their liberal counterparts, Republicans have railed against the search giant. Though researchers found that Microsoft’s Outlook and Yahoo Mail sent more Democrats’ missives to spam, the findings reignited GOP claims of “censorship” by Google.

So when Google CEO Sundar Pichai flew to Washington to meet with top lawmakers last week, he came equipped with a response: a new proposal to minimize how often candidates’ emails hit Gmail’s spam filter and to allow the company to share more data on its practices with campaigns — without facing legal repercussions.

According to a filing circulated with congressional offices and obtained by The Technology 202, Google is asking the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to weigh in on whether it can launch a program to shield candidates’ emails from some spam detection tools.

Under the “pilot program,” candidates, political party committees and other major campaign institutions would apply to have their messages “not be affected by forms of spam detection to which they would otherwise be subject” unless their messages violate Gmail’s policies, according to the filing, first reported by Axios.

The program would also allow participants to “receive information about the rate at which their emails are delivered into Gmail users’ inboxes as opposed to spam folder,” according to an FEC request by a law firm representing Google dated June 21. 

Google spokesperson José Castañeda confirmed in a statement Monday that Google “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.”

Pichai mentioned the plan during meetings with GOP lawmakers last week, which included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), according to multiple people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications. 

The Google chief aimed to discuss issues including data privacy, the semiconductor shortage and antitrust legislation, according to three people, but Republican senators pressed the tech mogul to address the spam issue. Pichai also met with Democratic lawmakers while in town.

Spokespeople for the lawmakers did not return requests for comment. 

“We regularly engage with lawmakers and regulators on a range of issues” including immigration, cybersecurity and online safety, Google’s Castañeda said. 

The meetings notably took place just a week after top Republicans — including McConnell, Thune, Scott and Daines — unveiled legislation targeting tech companies over allegations of political bias in their algorithmic filtering of emails. Violators would be subject to penalties.

Google's proposal is already drawing blowback from Democrats, however, and it may not be enough to satisfy GOP critics.

“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," said Daniel Wessel, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

“It’s a positive step, but more needs to be done,” Thune spokesperson Ryan Wrasse told The Technology 202. “Consumers want a long-term, transparent fix, which is what Senator Thune’s bill would provide.”

While Republicans have seized on the study as evidence of Google “censoring” voices on the right, the researchers who authored it told me last month that GOP lawmakers were cherry-picking the findings, which showed no intentional bias.

“Gmail isn’t biased like the way it’s being portrayed,” said Muhammad Shahzad, an associate professor in computer science at North Carolina State University, in response to an op-ed by Daines.

Google spokesperson Ross Richendrfer previously said the study “has major flaws,” adding, “There is no political bias in how Gmail deals with spam.” (Microsoft said earlier that it uses anti-spam tools to “make sure that customers do not receive unwanted or inappropriate” emails. Yahoo did not return a request for comment in May.)

Republican groups and lawmakers have accused tech companies of flaunting rules against in-kind contributions by taking action against prominent conservative social media users. Companies are generally prohibited from making non-monetary contributions aimed at influencing federal elections. 

Now, Google is asking the FEC to make clear that by launching such a program it would “not be making prohibited in-kind contributions” to any campaign over another, the filing said. 

The law firm representing Google noted that the program “will be offered free of charge and on a non-partisan basis.”

Our top tabs

Pelosi calls for legislation to protect ‘women’s most intimate’ data post-Roe

In response to the Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion rights, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a letter to colleagues that her caucus is considering legislation that “[p]rotects women’s most intimate and personal data stored in reproductive health apps.”  

“Many fear that this information could be used against women by a sinister prosecutor in a state that criminalizes abortion,” Pelosi added, singling it out as a top issue.

Other top Democratic officials including aides to Senate Commerce Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are pushing to expand protections for reproductive health data and other sensitive information in the wake of the ruling striking down Roe v. Wade, as I reported Monday. The issue could emerge as a sticking point as lawmakers look to hash out a bipartisan privacy deal with Republicans, who largely oppose issues around abortion rights. 

Bipartisan bill would neutralize confidentiality pacts that silence harassment survivors

A group of Democrats and Republicans introduced legislation that would ensure that workers can speak out about sexual assault or harassment, even if they signed a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), my colleague Cat Zakrzewski reports. Reps. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) introduced the “Speak Out Act” to prevent employers from enforcing NDAs in instances when employees and workers report sexual misconduct.

“This is a preventive piece,” Frankel said. “When companies that are going to have offenders are aware that they cannot hide illegal sexual harassment, that they cannot put it under the rug, they’re going to take more steps from the get-go to keep it from happening.”

NDAs are particularly common in the tech industry, and the threat of legal retaliation from powerful companies and individuals can have a silencing effect on sexual harassment survivors. The legislation’s sponsors are responding to a growing bipartisan interest in creating greater transparency around workplace misconduct. In March, President Biden signed a bipartisan bill into law that would end forced arbitration in sexual assault and harassment cases, in which employees waive their rights to sue their employers and are instead required to settle their disputes outside the court.

Major investor plans U.S. chips manufacturing push, but it may hinge on Congress

A big Taiwanese investor announced a significant commitment to U.S. semiconductor manufacturing Monday, but the Commerce Department suggested the plans are contingent on Congress passing federal subsidies in the Chips Act, my colleague Jeanne Whalen reports for The Technology 202.

GlobalWafers, a Taiwanese company, plans to start construction later this year on a plant to produce silicon wafers in Sherman, Tex. — the first new such factory in the United States in 20 years, the Commerce Department said as it kicked off the annual SelectUSA foreign investment summit.

The shiny 300 millimeter discs, about the size of a 12-inch record, are the starting material for fabricating semiconductors, also known as computer chips. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo suggested the investment is contingent on Congress passing $52 billion in subsidies for semiconductor manufacturing — a legislative process that proponents are racing to try to finish after more than a year of delays.

“GlobalWafers committed to the U.S. because they believe Congress will get the Bipartisan Innovation Act over the finish line in the coming weeks,” Raimondo said in a statement. The factory is one piece of a planned $3.4 billion in investments that GlobalWafers intends to make in various projects in the United States.

Inside the industry

Facebook is bombarding cancer patients with ads for unproven treatments (MIT Technology Review)

Judge orders new trial in Tesla worker's race bias lawsuit (Reuters)

Competition watch

Supreme Court rejects Apple’s bid to continue fighting over two Qualcomm patents (The Verge)

Privacy monitor

The #1 Period Tracker on the App Store Will Hand Over Data Without a Warrant (VICE)

Trending

Social media app BeReal promises reality. With food, that’s not easy. (Jess Eng)

Daybook

  • FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington discusses net neutrality at an R Street Institute event on Thursday at 3 p.m.

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