The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP went to war against Google over spam — and may win

As fundraising slows, the GOP is blaming Gmail’s spam filter. The tech giant rejects claims of bias but is moving to placate Republicans, anyway.

(Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News)

The occasion was lunch. The setting was an ornate room off the Senate chamber.

The hosts were some of the top Republican lawmakers in the country and the strategists responsible for filling their campaign coffers. Their guest, on a Wednesday in May, was Google’s top lawyer, invited to explain the company’s approach to email spam and answer charges that the tech giant was suppressing Republican solicitations.

Amid a chorus of complaints, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) offered an analogy. The 88-year-old suggested that Google sending emails to spam was equivalent to the post office refusing to deliver the mail, according to three people in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details from a closed-door meeting.

“If you mail a letter, you expect it to be delivered,” said a “red-faced” Grassley, as one person recalled. “That’s what should happen!”

The criticism marked the apex of a pressure campaign waged against Google by the GOP as the party continues to send unrelenting appeals for cash even amid signs its tactics are faltering. The party’s online fundraising has fallen off in recent months, declining by about 11 percent in the second quarter of the year, compared with the first, according to federal filings from WinRed, the main donation-processing portal for Republicans. Online fundraising by Democrats increased by more than 21 percent, according to filings from the Democrats’ main portal, ActBlue.

It’s unclear what impact Google’s spam filters have had on the GOP’s fundraising, if any. Nevertheless, Republicans have waged a pressure campaign that has included public Twitter offensives and private discussions with Google chief executive Sundar Pichai. GOP lawmakers have introduced draft legislation in both chambers of Congress.

The effort’s impact became apparent this month when Google asked the Federal Election Commission to green-light a pilot program that would exempt campaign emails from spam detection. That change could reshape the experience of Gmail users. The amount of political fundraising conducted over email and text has exploded in recent years, adding to the deluge of promotional messages swamping Americans every day. The program could further intensify the inundation.

The GOP’s full-court press drew on the party’s longtime protest that Silicon Valley is biased against conservatives — a claim disputed by the companies. It is a politically sensitive time for Google, as the company works to defeat antitrust legislation that executives say could compromise user safety and undermine Google’s most popular products.

In recent election cycles, the Republican fundraising apparatus, led by Gary Coby, a strategist for former president Donald Trump, has ratcheted up email solicitations for small-dollar contributions. Trump’s PAC often sends out more than a dozen pitches a day. Many are misleading, with promises of a “700%” match but with fine print showing that donations may not specifically benefit the advertised cause, such as a “Protect Our Elections Fund.”

Coby also works for the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. When Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) took over that operation in November 2020, he expanded the budget for small-dollar fundraising, people at the committee say, and told his team to be more aggressive in raising cash.

Trump’s advisers, meanwhile, have received complaints about his constant fundraising solicitations, and some people fear that it will turn off voters, two Trump advisers said. But the former president is pleased with his fundraising, these advisers say, and Coby has told others that his strategy is working.

People familiar with the thinking inside Google said the company is being scapegoated by Republican consultants seeking to shift the blame for poor fundraising caused by lists that have grown stale and recipients who have tired of incessant appeals, especially those coming from entities that have rented or purchased email addresses.

Brett Schenker, an email deliverability specialist who has consulted for Democratic campaigns, echoed that explanation — and said it made him “embarrassed for Google over how they’ve reacted.”

“It’s very suspicious that there’s major antitrust legislation that would potentially impact Google’s search algorithms that they want killed while this is going on,” he said. “So they’re acquiescing instead of standing up to Republicans and defending their very effective spam filters.”

Schenker’s own analysis of successful inbox placement for 22 campaigns and political organizations shows a roughly even partisan breakdown, he said, with the best-performing domain controlled by a group associated with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

With July’s fundraising deadline looming, Republicans are escalating their tactics, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post. The Republican National Committee’s chief digital officer emailed Google representatives this week complaining that the party keeps hearing the same “debunked” explanation for the GOP’s poor performance in Gmail inboxes — “that there is a threshold of user spam complaints that we teeter on, and then somehow crossover at the same time each month.”

“Bottom line,” wrote the digital officer, Christian Schaeffer, “should we expect Google to choose to block the RNC’s emails at end of month again this week?”

A Google director promised answers in a phone conversation the next day. “We will make whatever time works best for you,” she wrote.

Google spokesman José Castañeda said company representatives discussed the RNC’s concerns around deliverability and pointed them to best practices for bulk senders.

He added, in a statement, that “we do not filter emails based on political affiliation.”

“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,” he said. “We look forward to exploring new ways to provide the best possible Gmail experience.”

‘Tying itself in knots’

The fight over spam gained new fuel from a study published at the end of March by researchers at North Carolina State University. They found that Gmail sent 77 percent of right-wing candidate emails to spam, compared with 10 percent of left-wing candidate emails. Outlook and Yahoo, by contrast, favored right-wing candidate emails, according to the study, although to a lesser degree.

The authors did not allege “deliberate attempts from these email services to create these biases to influence the voters” but, nevertheless, concluded that technology has learned to “mark more emails from one political affiliation as spam compared to the other.”

Google took issue with the study, saying the researchers used a small sample size and old data while not accounting for which candidates had used recommended tools when sending bulk emails. The company touts its filtering capabilities — based on artificial intelligence that incorporates a range of factors, including user input — and says they are capable of “blocking more than 99.9 percent of spam, phishing, and malware from ever reaching users’ inboxes.”

By the end of April, the GOP’s three main party committees had filed a complaint against Google with the FEC, citing the North Carolina State study and alleging “Illegal In-Kind Contributions Made by Google to Biden For President and Other Democrat Candidates.”

Around the same time, representatives from the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and from a leading GOP digital strategy firm, Targeted Victory, briefed senators on the party’s poor performance with Gmail inboxes, according to people familiar with the discussions. The presentation involved a slide deck using the North Carolina State study to illustrate the potential impact on upcoming Senate races.

In May, Senate Republicans invited Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer, to explain the company’s spam detection systems and answer questions. The lunch meeting, which was first reported by Politico, grew tense, according to people who were there.

The most forceful rebuke, attendees said, came from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who claimed that not a single email from one of his addresses was reaching inboxes. The reason, it was later determined, was that a vendor had not enabled an authentication tool that keeps messages from being marked as spam, according to people briefed on the discussions. Rubio campaign manager Mark Morgan said the problem also required Google to perform a reset on its end. Google’s Castañeda said such resets are standard practice once senders adhere to best practices.

People familiar with Google’s approach said company representatives were not prepared to address specific complaints on the spot, such as Rubio’s, because they were not given materials ahead of time. Both Coby, from the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, and Zac Moffatt, Targeted Victory’s chief executive, were present, which struck some participants as unusual for a policy lunch.

Walker and other Google leaders, including Lee Dunn, a policy director and onetime aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), explained to Grassley how Gmail differed from the post office, namely that users opt in to the online service, according to meeting participants.

Grassley, in a statement to The Post, accused tech giants of bias and said, “It’s past time these companies are held accountable for manipulating algorithms that control what Americans see online, including in their email inboxes.”

Many lawmakers relayed personal anecdotes that revealed limited understanding of how Gmail works, although some of their points touched on areas of ongoing study by Google. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked why she wasn’t getting emails from a pro-Israel group after signing up for its newsletter.

Some were unconvinced by the company’s responses. “What Google is saying is false,” Moffatt told The Post, accusing the company of seeking to “distract attention from the proven problem of unfair filtering. … Now that there has been independent, third-party confirmations, they are scrambling to find a half-baked solution that is completely unworkable.”

Coby, in a statement, said voters who sign up to receive campaign emails “should receive 100 percent of the emails unless they unsubscribe or mark the email as spam.”

“This is not what happens on Gmail. They choose to actively block GOP emails even if the voter has not taken these actions,” he added. “Google is lying if they tell you they only block emails when a voter marks as spam or unsubscribes.” (Google does not say that, in fact outlining a range of factors that go into spam filtering, such as suspicious links and phrases, in addition to user behavior.)

In June, several senators, including Scott and the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune (S.D.), met with Pichai and raised similar concerns, although the tone was more cordial, according to people who were present or learned about the meetings. Scott pushed for “higher deliverability” of emails, said his spokesman, Chris Hartline. A spokesman for Thune declined to comment.

The same month, Republican officials grew increasingly vocal on social media, sharing charts purporting to show the rate at which their emails were reaching inboxes. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, in a statement, framed the issue as a fight against “Big Tech power hungry liberals.”

“Big Tech’s bias is abundantly clear — Google has systematically suppressed the RNC’s fundraising and [Get Out the Vote] emails for several months and they are still unable to provide any reasonable explanation for this attack,” she said. “These emails are sent to our most engaged, opt-in supporters, yet it keeps happening.”

RNC officials say Dunn, the Google director and former McCain aide, has privately encouraged them to keep speaking out about their emails being blocked. Castañeda, the Google spokesman, said Dunn encouraged the RNC to continue to provide feedback.

Democrats see matters differently, defending Gmail’s spam filter as an asset for users.

“Not content with their ability to bilk their supporters out of $250 million with a fraudulent ‘election defense fund,’ Republicans have successfully lobbied Google to remove one of the few anti-abuse protections that remain,” said Daniel Wessel, a Democratic National Committee spokesman, referring to findings from the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2o21, attack on the U.S. Capitol that Trump and his allies used misleading claims about voter fraud to raise enormous sums in the weeks after the 2020 election.

Also in June, Thune introduced a bill with the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the Political Bias in Algorithm Sorting Emails Act of 2022. It would bar email providers from marking messages as spam without the direction of users. Similar legislation was introduced in the House.

The legislation, said Anne P. Mitchell, the chief executive of Get to the Inbox, an email certification service, is “clearly grandstanding to push Google to do exactly what they’re now doing.”

“Rather than dealing with the possibility of the law passing and tying itself in knots defending its ability to apply spam filtering, Google has gone to the FEC,” she said. “The result of this will be to cram political spam down people’s throats.”

‘Politically charged’

Most requests for advisory opinions before the FEC have something in common: They generate few, if any, public comments.

The sweeping ramifications that could result from Google’s request are reflected in the interest it has generated, prompting about 2,500 public comments, mostly from individuals. They overwhelmingly ask the regulator to advise against the proposed Google program allowing candidate and other committees registered with the FEC to evade ordinary spam detection.

“Hello,” one person wrote to the commission this week. “I have heard of the new plan to allow political correspondence to evade my spam box. I am vehemently opposed to this plan.”

Another implored, “Do NOT allow this.”

The public has until early August to weigh in, at which point the six commissioners, divided evenly by party, will consider a draft opinion and determine if there are at least four votes for an answer to Google.

There is some discomfort within the FEC about the genesis of the request and the appearance that it resulted from political and governmental pressure, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing matter. They nonetheless said this context is unlikely to figure in the commission’s decision-making, which boils down to whether such a pilot program represents a prohibited in-kind political contribution or an acceptable move in line with Google’s ordinary business practices.

Companies routinely make commercial decisions on the basis of government or political pressure, one official noted. Just this week, the Disney-backed streaming service Hulu reversed course after Democratic outcry and said it would accept issue ads on controversial topics.

People with knowledge of Google’s approach also said the pilot program is not entirely a reaction to GOP complaints but draws on long-standing efforts to experiment with options for bulk senders. And, even if backed by the FEC, the program may not persist beyond six months if it’s not working, they added.

David Mason, a former Republican commissioner who is now the general counsel and chief compliance officer at the data-management company Aristotle, said he would favor Google’s request because it unleashes political speech. “I understand people hate spam,” he said. “My response is that they can train their email filters.”

Still, the public provocation that preceded the request puts the FEC in a difficult spot, he added.

“I think it is relevant to the FEC that Google’s getting political pressure to do this,” Mason said. “It puts commissioners in a position where anything they do or fail to do is going to be interpreted as politically charged.”

Among the thousands of people watching to see what the regulator will do is Hassan Iqbal, the North Carolina State study’s first author.

He thinks spam filters should remain for campaign emails, he said. But he relished Google’s decision to take action, which “established that our study is not that flawed after all,” he said.

Gerrit De Vynck, Cat Zakrzewski and Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report.

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