Google plans to discontinue a pilot program that allows political campaigns to evade its email spam filters, the latest round in the technology giant’s tussle with the GOP over online fundraising.
“The RNC is wrong,” Google argued in its motion. “Gmail’s spam filtering policies apply equally to emails from all senders, whether they are politically affiliated or not.”
The RNC complaint, filed last October, made clear that Google’s pilot program failed to allay GOP criticism of the company’s spam filters. That criticism mounted last summer amid the party’s disappointing online fundraising performance.
GOP lawmakers and campaign groups blamed Gmail technology. They cited a study published by computer science researchers at North Carolina State University that claimed to have found that Gmail sent 77 percent of right-leaning candidate emails to spam, compared with 10 percent of left-leaning candidate emails. Google maintained that the study was flawed and that other factors, such as the frequency of emails and the way users respond to them, inform the way its automated filters work.
While rejecting the GOP’s attacks, Google nonetheless bowed to them. The company asked the Federal Election Commission to greenlight the pilot program, available to all campaigns and political committees registered with the federal regulator. The company anticipated at the time that a trial run would last through January 2023.
Thousands of public comments implored the FEC to advise against the program, which consumer advocates and other individuals said would overwhelm Gmail users with spam. Anne P. Mitchell, a lawyer and founder of an email certification service called Get to the Inbox, wrote that Google was “opening up the floodgates to their users’ inboxes ... to assuage partisan disgruntlement.”
The FEC gave its approval in August, with one Democrat joining the commission’s three Republicans to clear the way for the initiative. Ultimately, more than 100 committees of both parties signed up for the program, said Google spokesman José Castañeda.
The RNC was not one of them, as Google emphasized in its motion to dismiss in the federal case in California.
“Ironically, the RNC could have participated in a pilot program leading up to the 2022 midterm elections that would have allowed its emails to avoid otherwise-applicable forms of spam detection,” the filing stated. “Many other politically-affiliated entities chose to participate in that program, which was approved by the FEC. The RNC chose not to do so. Instead, it now seeks to blame Google based on a theory of political bias that is both illogical and contrary to the facts alleged in its own Complaint.”
At the time of the program’s introduction last fall, GOP groups argued that it came too soon before the midterms and posed unexplained risks for campaigns.
In addition to the federal lawsuit, the RNC and other GOP campaign groups also brought a complaint before the FEC arguing that Gmail spam filters disproportionately flagged GOP fundraising emails in a way that amounted to a prohibited in-kind contribution to Democrats. The regulator informed Google this month that it had found no reason to believe that the company had breached campaign-finance law.
Google’s filing on Monday mounted a rigorous defense of the company’s spam technology. That defense served, implicitly, as an argument for ending its short-lived pilot program.
“Indeed, effective spam filtering is a key feature of Gmail, and one of the main reasons why Gmail is so popular,” the filing stated.