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The debate over political bias in the tech sector has reached your spam folder
Aug 16, 2022

The debate over political bias in the tech sector has reached your spam folder

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Google will allow emails from qualified political campaigns to bypass spam filters — a response to criticisms of bias from the GOP.

Following backlash from Republican leaders, the Federal Election Commission is giving the OK to a pilot program from Google that would allow authorized political committees or campaigns to bypass Gmail’s spam filters and go directly into a user’s inbox.

Google came up with the program after the GOP accused the company of disproportionately shunting Republican campaign emails to spam, citing a recent study from North Carolina State University.

“Marketplace Tech’s” Kimberly Adams spoke with Ashley Gold, a tech and policy reporter for Axios, about the details of that study, the pilot program and more. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ashley Gold: This study found that Gmail was filtering out conservative emails more often than others, such as Yahoo Mail or other types of email clients — Outlook Mail. But what came to the fore later, as the researchers involved in the study told some other reporters, was that was largely based on the way users would choose to mark emails as spam, and that they believed that the conservatives who were taking so much meaning from the study were misrepresenting their findings, and that they would not draw the conclusion from the study that Gmail was specifically biased.

Kimberly Adams: So what would this pilot program do?

Gold: The pilot program would let approved political campaigns, accredited with the Federal Election Commission and meet certain criteria — so they have to be legit — send their emails, and they would not be caught automatically in Gmail spam filters. Rather, they would go straight to the users’ inbox, and the users will be given a choice: Do you want to mark this as spam? And if so, emails from that sender would be marked as spam from then on. Or the user could say, “No, don’t mark, this is spam. I actually did want this in my inbox.”

Ashley Gold. Credit: Karen Obrist

Adams: How have people been responding to this idea? I know the Federal Election Commission took public comments on this.

Gold: People have been responding very poorly to this idea. People say, “I get enough spam. I get enough spam calls. I get enough spam texts. The last thing I possibly need in my life is more spam email.” You know, “Conservatives are trying to cheat the system,” some people said. Reading all these comments, I got a sense of people being really overwhelmed by all the communication that they receive, whether it’s on their phones or via email, and they just did not like this at all.

Adams: So now it’s Google’s turn to act. Do you know if they’re actually going to launch this program? And if so, how soon?

Gold: So I just checked in with Google. I was told there’s no date yet on when the program may launch, and they are currently working through the details.

Adams: So what does it mean then that Google is at least appearing to, you know, give some way in this debate by coming out with a new strategy?

Gold: So Google has a lot of fires to put out right now. They are being sued by the federal government. They are being sued by multiple attorneys general. There’s a major antitrust bill that is maybe going to be hitting the Senate floor within a couple of months, and they’ve been lobbying against it. So they have to choose their battles a little bit. This is sort of how it goes with tech firms and the government. They sort of take turns, you know, doing policies that may anger one side of the aisle, and then doing a policy that may appease the other side of the aisle. And I don’t want to say it’s just conservatives that get mad at Big Tech, because it’s absolutely liberals and Democrats as well. But they certainly don’t escape scrutiny from any political party.

You can find Gold’s coverage of this news here as well as Google’s July request for an opinion from the FEC regarding this program, in case you want to read more details about how it would work.

You can also read the original North Carolina State University study here, where researchers also found that Outlook and Yahoo’s mail service disproportionately filtered more political emails from left-leaning campaigns, candidates or parties as spam.

And as Gold mentioned, the study authors did a follow-up interview with The Washington Post where they said the GOP had been misrepresenting their findings.

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The team

Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer