The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate GOP escalates its attack on Google over email spam

As the party’s online fundraising dips, a new draft letter demands that the tech giant give campaigns a mulligan when they run afoul of Gmail’s spam filter

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), seen at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Aug. 4, is among the Republican senators escalating their criticism of Google over alleged bias in email spam filtering. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Republican caucus, is preparing to escalate its attack on Google over the company’s email spam filter, which it blames for recent fundraising disappointments, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

A draft memo on NRSC letterhead, and addressed to Google, claims that “Google and its algorithms have handed a distinct advantage to Democrat fundraising efforts, resulting in Republicans raising millions of dollars less than they should be able to.” And a Wednesday afternoon email from an NRSC official to chiefs of staff and legislative directors for Republican senators asks them to have their bosses sign the letter before leaving for their August recess.

The email states that Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) is spearheading the effort. In a May meeting, Grassley told Google representatives that Gmail should operate like a post office and suggested that sending emails to spam was equivalent to a post office refusing to deliver the mail, according to three people in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

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

The basis for the GOP’s allegations, which Google denies, is a March study published by researchers at North Carolina State University finding that Gmail sent 77 percent of right-wing candidate emails to spam in 2020, compared with 10 percent of left-wing candidate emails.

Google took issue with the study, saying it relied on a small sample size and old data while not accounting for which candidates had used recommended tools when sending bulk emails. People familiar with the company’s thinking said Google 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. The GOP’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.

Still, the study fueled a months-long pressure campaign waged by the GOP against the technology giant. The campaign involved private meetings with Google chief executive Sundar Pichai; public censure of the company by party leaders on Twitter; and draft legislation introduced in both chambers of Congress that would limit Google’s ability to apply spam filtering.

The impact of the pressure became apparent last month, when Google asked the Federal Election Commission to green-light a pilot program that would exempt campaign emails from automated 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.

A draft advisory opinion published Tuesday by FEC lawyers said the proposed program would not violate federal campaign finance law. The draft opinion will be considered by the body’s six commissioners, who are divided evenly by party, at a meeting Aug. 11. Four votes are needed to approve an opinion.

The NRSC letter calls the proposed pilot program “unacceptable.”

“It comes too late and it’s too risky for campaigns,” the letter argues. “In the first place, it’s not clear that the FEC will approve it before the election.”

The letter also alleges that the proposal “requires campaigns to provide Google with a great deal of sensitive proprietary information.”

It’s unclear what sort of information Senate Republicans have in mind. Google’s request to the FEC makes no mention of a need for sensitive information. Rather, the proposed program would include only campaigns and committees registered with the FEC because the company can verify their identity using the email address provided to the regulator.

Grassley aides did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An NRSC spokesman also did not immediately respond.

In place of the pilot program, the letter demands that Google simply give “any 2022 campaign the option to reset their email domain, restoring their email reputation and allowing emails to go to Gmail inboxes.”

A domain’s reputation is among the factors that weigh in Gmail’s spam filters, which rely on artificial intelligence. “These filters look at a variety of signals, including characteristics of the IP address, domains/subdomains, whether bulk senders are authenticated, and user input,” Google states.

At least once in recent months, Google reset those signals for an individual campaign once it fixed authentication errors and adhered to best practices. That happened in late May for a domain associated with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) after his team fixed an authentication problem, according to emails reviewed by The Post.

The NRSC letter argues that such resets should be possible on demand for campaigns experiencing email problems.

“We demand all Republican Senators get Gmail mitigation, the same fix Google has provided to a handful of campaigns and committees,” the letter reads. “This should be done in such a way that a warmup period is not required, so that emails may be sent by campaigns at the same rate they were sent before a reset without being immediately flagged as spam. The same option should also be made available to any Democrats concerned about email inboxing.”

In a statement, Google spokesman José Castañeda did not address that demand but defended the proposed pilot program and said, “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.”

Watchdog groups and email delivery specialists have defended Gmail’s automated filters, criticizing the GOP for working to undermine spam detection and Google for caving to the pressure and asking the FEC to sanction a political carve-out. These voices argue that any move to wipe away automated spam detection would reward bad behavior.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog, argued in a public comment submitted to the FEC that “misleading and potentially fraudulent fundraising practices” may explain why more GOP emails are flagged as spam. “Indeed, Google has explained that the disparate filtering is likely the result of users’ behavior marking mail as spam,” the comment argues.

Josh Nelson, CEO of Civic Shout, a platform for left-leaning causes, wrote in a comment submitted to the FEC that exempting campaign communications from Gmail’s automated filters “amounts to penalizing Democrats for making investments in following clearly-established best practices.”

“It would give a distinct electoral advantage to Republican campaigns and committees who have ignored those same best practices for years to their own detriment,” he wrote.

Those two comments are among thousands submitted to the FEC, most raising concerns about a deluge of spam email. But the question before the regulator is not whether such a program is advisable but rather whether it’s permitted under federal campaign finance law.

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