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Max Chafkin

Google Is Going to Let Politicians Spam Your Inbox

On June 21, Google parent Alphabet Inc. floated a plan to fix a problem it had identified in its spam filters. The solution was specifically aimed at political spam, the kind likely to pour in during an especially noisy midterm election season. Unfortunately for all of us, Google seems to have decided the problem is that it filters too much spam—and the solution is to let politicians run wild with polling updates, merch solicitations, and frantic fundraising pleas.

In a filing to the Federal Election Commission, the company proposed suspending Gmail spam filters on messages from political parties and candidates as part of a plan to “enhance user and bulk sender experience.” This pilot program, to be rolled out during the upcoming election cycle, will still allow Gmail users to manually unsubscribe from each unwanted email list. (How generous.) They’ll have to do it, however, by clicking on one thirsty form letter at a time.

The FEC proposal followed the introduction of a bill by Senate Republicans that would prevent tech companies from applying spam filters to political emails. The bill has no chance of passing while the Democrats control Congress, but Google appears to be trying to head off future attempts at regulation should that change. In a statement, company spokesman José Castañeda described the proposal as an effort to provide added transparency while preserving Google’s commitment to “a great experience for all of our users.” He also said Google doesn’t filter messages based on political affiliation.

The whole thing is a weird look for Google, which for all its faults has generally tried to cater to the actual needs of consumers and isn’t known to shrink from a lobbying fight. This opt-out model is the opposite of what most people want—to block all political spam by default. The reaction has been predictable. On Twitter, users have threatened to go back to Hotmail or give up email altogether. A typical response simply asked: “Why does Google hate us?”

To understand what happened here, you first have to appreciate the power Gmail exercises over inboxes and, therefore, marketers of all stripes. Its extreme dominance translates to 1.5 billion monthly users, or about 75% of the market for web-based email. In practice, that means your potential customer base will shrink massively if Google decides you’re not worthy of its inbox. Entrepreneurs complain about this all the time, and so do politicians. During hearings two years ago, a Republican congressman from Florida, Greg Steube, asked Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai why Steube’s own parents weren’t receiving his fundraising emails. “This appears to only be happening to conservative Republicans,” Steube said.

That last bit is wrong—Democratic politicians also get spamified—but it contains a grain of truth, at least according to researchers from North Carolina State University. They released a study in March that examined the spam filtering of Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo Mail and found that while Yahoo and Outlook filtered out more emails from Democrats than Republicans, implying a modest conservative bias for both services, Gmail had a strong liberal bias. Google, the researchers said, marked almost 70% of right-wing messages as spam, compared with about 10% of left-wing emails.

Even when the researchers attempted to compare emails on similar topics, Gmail still seemed to restrict Republicans more than Democrats. The Google results became less pronounced, however, when the researchers looked at how the service responded to a user’s behavior. In other words, if Steube’s parents had gone into their spam filter and moved one of his emails into their inbox, they’d probably start receiving them.

“I don’t think that any Gmail engineers are deliberately trying to get right-wing emails into the spam folder,” says Muhammad Shahzad, one of the study’s authors. His guess is that Google’s software is reacting to the preferences of a user base that’s likely younger and less conservative than the people using Outlook and Yahoo. If Gmail users tend to classify terms like “Great MAGA King Status” and “Promo Code: Rudy” as spam, Gmail will be more likely overall to filter out messages with similar phrases.

If Google feels the need to fend off hostile lawmakers, it can do better than rendering our inboxes unreadable for the next four months or longer. (I hate to tell you this, but as soon as the midterms are over, the presidential election season begins.) Instead, the company could try to make sure its filters aren’t inadvertently labeling partisan emails as spam, while being transparent with users about how much progress it makes. Google initially responded to the NC State study by citing “major flaws” and claimed it was out of date because it had used data from 2020 (also known as the most recent national election). Instead of attacking researchers who are making a good-faith effort to examine its power, Google could fund their work, perhaps as part of a consortium with other email providers to avoid allegations of bias.

This is also, let’s be real, a great problem for the company to have. It reflects just how dominant Gmail is as a means of communicating with the world. The service has no significant rivals, partly because it’s a great product and partly because Google has worked hard to limit the reach of competitors. Android phones generally come with Gmail built in, and it’s difficult to set up a new device without signing up for Google’s services. Companies that make other email services, such as the privacy-oriented mail service Proton, say Google’s promotion of Gmail has hurt them and the rest of us. “Google has mind-bogglingly centralized power over the internet,” says Proton spokesperson Matt Fossen. “Not only are the mistakes Google makes consequential, but it has little incentive to fix those mistakes.” Castañeda, the Google spokesman, says that Android offers “unprecedented choice” through its app store.

Throwing Gmail wide open to political spammers might make political sense for Google, allowing it to sidestep Republican concerns ahead of an election that may put the GOP in control of Congress. But it’s not going to do anything for the company’s actual customers beyond forcing them to spend even more time unsubscribing to emails they never wanted. Moreover, in putting political expediency above the user’s experience—and making its email services a little bit less functional—Google is turning away from the thing that helped it earn its market share in the first place.Read next: ADT Is Betting Google Can Drag It Into the Future

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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