Attention Gmail users: Your inboxes are about to get way more spammy with political email thanks to a new ruling by federal regulators
- Google asked federal regulators to OK a plan for easing spam filters on political emails.
- The Federal Election Commission voted 4-1-1 to approve Google's plan.
Get ready for an whole lot more political email hitting your main Gmail inbox.
In a 4-1-1 vote Thursday, the Federal Election Commission ruled that Google could legally launch a pilot program for political candidates that allows them to skirt email spam filters when raising money from, or otherwise communicating with, prospective voters and donors.
Despite a torrent of public outrage preceding the vote, Google is now free to invite federal political candidates to sign up for the email pilot program, which would amount to a free pass out of Gmail spam-box purgatory.
The core question before the FEC was decidedly narrow: Would a Google giving some political candidates a break from Gmail spam filters constitute an illegal in-kind political contribution — or, in other words, something of value to political candidates that violated existing campaign finance law?
It would not, most commissioners agreed. Even a commissioner who wasn't thrilled with the notion of unleashing more political emails on an overloaded electorate concluded Google's program proposal is legal.
"I don't want to, and it's for the same reasons that all the commenters don't want to," newly appointed Democratic Commissioner Dara Lindenbaum said before voting in favor of Google's request. "But I think the law and the commission regulations and commission precedent permit this."
Republican commissioners Allen Dickerson, Trey Trainor, and Sean Cooksey joined Lindenbaum in voting to approve Google's request.
Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub voted against it, while Democratic Commissioner Shana Broussard abstained.
The path to this decision has been turbulent.
Facing growing public outrage over misleading and hyperbolic fundraising pitches, the FEC last month unanimously agreed to give Americans three more weeks to critique Google's request to quickly allow political committees' emails to skirt its Gmail spam filters.
The FEC received 2,641 comments on Google's request and another 104 comments on a draft response the commission circulated.
"If people want political spam, let them sign up for it. Do not make me and those who do not want political spam spend hours marking messages as spam trying to stop the flood," wrote one commentor whose concerns echoed hundreds of others.
Republicans and Democrats alike have engaged in spammy, misleading, and even patently false email campaigns. That didn't stop the Democratic National Committee from registered concerns that Google's pilot program would foster "deceptive solicitations," be to the "detriment of voters and our democracy," and "place the burden on Google's users themselves to protect their inboxes from unwanted political spam emails
Although the FEC told Insider that it doesn't keep track of which advisory opinion requests have over the years attracted the most public comments, a review of past cases indicates Google's request ranks near or at the top.
Before the final vote Thursday, Weintraub motioned to approve a alternate ruling that would have effectively prevented Google from launching its pilot program.
The motion failed in a 1-4-1 vote, with Weintraub alone voting for it.
"Google should be aware that if it decides to move forward with its ridiculous and wildly unpopular plan to allow political campaigns to send spam email without consequence, it will face unprecedented backlash from its users, who overwhelmingly do not want this change to happen," said Josh Nelson, a political fundraiser and CEO of Civic Shout, which works for left-learning causes and campaigns.
Google's political email plan
As described in its initial request to the FEC, Google wants to "launch a pilot program for authorized candidate committees, political party committees, and leadership political action committees" that would ensure the emails of accepted committees "will not be affected by forms of spam detection to which they would otherwise be subject."
Google said that its spam-skirting political pilot program is "not intended to favor or disfavor any particular candidate, party or speaker, nor intended to influence the outcome of any election."
Google attorney Claire Rajan of Allen & Overy LLP told the FEC on Thursday that the many negative comments from people decrying the plan were "well received" and that "people really dislike spam, which Google knows well."
How Gmail users will ultimately react to the program in practice can't be predicted, Rajan said.
"We can't know that until testing that, and that's the purpose of the pilot," she said.
Many Republicans have argued that spam filters have disproportionately affected GOP emails, although Rajan said that isn't true and that Google is not biased for or against any political party or candidate.
Any committee registered with the FEC, whose emails comply with Google's terms of service and don't contain prohibited content such as malware or phishing schemes, could apply to participate. Gmail users will retain the right to opt-out of receiving political emails, but this will require more vigilance on their part.
Google's concerns — articulated in a 15-page letter to the FEC from Rajan on July 1 — centered on whether its efforts would constitute "prohibited in-kind contributions" to political committees.
Put simply: Google wanted the government's reassurance that it isn't breaking any law by giving politicians and political operatives a potentially valuable service. Suspected violations of federal campaign finance laws can result in costly investigations and potential civil fines, say nothing of bad press.
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