from the people-hate-spam.-republicans-want-to-spam-you-more dept
For a few months now, we’ve been following this nonsense story, driven almost entirely by executives at the GOP’s favorite digital marketing (read: spamming) operation, that Google is censoring political spam from Republicans. This was all based on either an incompetent, or deliberate, misreading of a study, which did find that an untouched Gmail account sent more GOP political spam to the spam folder than Democratic spam.
GOP politicians and operatives seized on this one finding — ignoring all of the other elements of the story that counteracted it — and insisted this was the smoking gun proof they needed that big tech was censoring conservatives. The reality, of course, was far different. The study also found that Outlook and Yahoo’s filters went the other way (filtering more Dem emails than GOP) and no one whined about that (perhaps because the Democrats are less interested in faking moral panics and culture wars not actually supported by the facts).
Even more importantly, the study found that this differential treatment in Gmail effectively disappeared if a user did some basic spam filter training. In other words, as long as the user gives just a slight signal that he or she is okay with GOP spam, your inbox will fill with GOP spam.
Also, at no point did the study take into account whether or not the GOP and its digital marketing lackeys tended to send spammier emails, but anecdotally, they sure seem to do exactly that. The Trump campaign, in particular, has a history of using spam-like techniques to try to separate gullible rubes from their money.
That said, Republicans seized on this. Their favorite spam factory launched a “coalition” pretending it was fighting for the “freedom to connect” (to spam?!?). Some GOP politicians complained to the Federal Election Commission that this was unfair election interference by Google (they left out Outlook and Yahoo helping them), and then finally a whole bunch of Republican politicians released a ridiculous bill that would effectively bar email companies from putting political mailings into a spam folder.
Apparently aiming to appease this nonsense, Google petitioned the FEC to allow it to run a pilot program that would whitelist political spam, including a message up top asking users if they wanted to hear from that politician again. Oddly, just days after Google made this public, that message, asking users if they wanted to continue receiving emails from the sender, using very similar language to what was discussed by Google… started showing up on EVERY SINGLE EMAIL.
Google insists that was all a random bug, but it sure makes you wonder if they were testing out this system and forgot to set a tester switch.
Anyway, because this petition went to the FEC, the FEC had to open it up briefly for public comment (though there’s some confusion about just how briefly) and it seems pretty darn clear that the public absolutely fucking hates this idea and is begging the FEC not to let Google do this.
As of the time I’m writing this there have been 48 responses, though more likely came in since, and the vast, vast majority absolutely hate the idea, and see through the proposal for exactly what it is: a way for politicians to flood their inboxes with email spam the users don’t actually want.
As with many of these open public comment periods, some users seem somewhat confused about what’s going on here. There is really only one “thoughtful” comment in favor of the program, and it’s from a guy named Joel Snyder, who runs a consulting firm with a website that looks like it was last updated sometime around 2003 or so. Anyway, his comment isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for political spam or the GOP. Instead, he notes that the problem of political spam is real and it’s only been getting worse.
The data we have collected about political mass emails changed dramatically between 2016 and 2020. We saw lots of
permission‐based mailings during the 2016 season. But for beginning before the 2020 campaign season, something
changed and we observe that all political parties (national committees, PACs, and candidates) were cross‐pollinating
mailing lists and dropping the requirement for permission before adding you to a fundraising list.
It was directly observed that if one donated directly or made contact with a candidate or office‐holder’s own web site,
irrespective of party, the email address provided would soon show up, without opting in, in fundraising appeals from
candidates from the same party all over the country.
The end result is a bunch of unsolicited commercial email that many in the anti‐spam business (including Google) would
consider spam showing up in our testing.
From that, it sounds like he would be against the policy. He even notes that the data his firm has collected disputes the claim that there’s political bias in spam filtering:
While “Big Tech” has been accused of having a liberal bias, the reality is that the choice to mark political fund raising
appeals as spam or not does not seem to be focused on one party or the other: there is NO pattern that indicates that
the Rs or the Ds are being targeted any differently.
However, he still supports the proposal… because he believes it would give the end user more control over whether or not something is considered spam.
That doesn’t make much sense to me, as the user already has plenty of control over that, by moving emails in or out of their spam filter, and having Gmail learn their preferences. I don’t see how Google’s proposal gives anyone more power over their own email. It seems to give less, by giving them less ability to allow Google to use broader data to help keep spam out of inboxes.
The only other email that seemed to directly support the pilot program is a bit confused, and also doesn’t much seem to like spam:
My opinion is … let a political email go to the “inbox” and not the
“spam” box … BUT every single political organization that sends out
an email MUST HAVE in plain sight and easy to read letters a “BLOCK
THIS EMAIL ADDRESS” link that can be clicked on similar to an
Then there are really some confused people — like the woman who owns her own graphic design firm… and seemed to think she was commenting to the FTC, not the FEC. And her comments are not particularly relevant.
To the FTC division supposedly taking note of consumer opinion regarding political Gmail
What we, the consumers, want regarding Big Tech is moot. I know this is abundantly clear
among IT technicians. It matters not! Google doesn’t need the FTC’s approval on how they
In fact, the FTC should dedicate more of its resources to Big Tech gouging, unsafe and/or
unfair and dangerous business practices.
Thank you for your service.
A frustrated technician!
There are also people who seem mad at Google and seem to be parroting some of the GOP’s talking points about how evil Google is for “making these decisions for users” but at the same time insist that the FEC should deny Google’s petition. Generally, this person seems very confused.
I do not want email ads outside of my spam folder unless I choose to move them. They are
spam, that is why they are in there. I do not want whatever campaign ads are going through
out of my spam folder. I do not want Google to unilaterally make that decision. Having the
ability to, and being forced to do my own research on campaigning politicians is my own
right. I do not want google to spoon feed me whatever politician they are backing. This
decision could negatively impact elections going forward simply because it would make the
voter’s choice easier to make with the assumption that Google is making the “correct choice”
for them without the need for research, and further google’s own politics rather than the
consumer’s individual politics. Please do not allow Google’s request for a program allowing
them to put campaign ads in the direct inbox without it being an OPT-IN only option. I do not
want this. This to me would be worth never using google products or programs again.
Then there’s this guy who basically repeats the GOP’s talking points that Google will pick winners and losers (it doesn’t), but… says the FEC should reject the petition because of that…
Please keep the current restrictions in place. It’s certain that the editors at Google will allow
emails with a political bent they agree with while censoring others. This is already a major
problem in online news causing further polarization in our culture
The vast, vast majority of the comments, though, see through this idea as just absolute nonsense and ask the FEC to reject it. Of course, most don’t give valid, FEC-based reasons for this, they just note how they hate political spam. But that’s not really the issue here.
Lawyer Anne Mitchell, who helped write the US’s CAN SPAM anti-spam law, has probably the most thoughtful submission, which she also posted to Twitter (so I’ll just embed that here):
But, mostly submitters just fucking hate political spam and don’t want anything that will lead to more of it in their inboxes. Just a few snippets:
Regarding the below, absolutely not. Campaigns should produce content that is of value and high quality sufficient to not be sent to spam by filters, just like every other sender. If they can’t, they shouldn’t get special treatment
Hard pass. Please do not allow Google to open up Pandora’a Box on the people by allowing campaign/political emails to bypass spam filters.
Campaign/political emails bypassing spam will make it a lot easier for bad actors to slip into people’s inboxes (people who never signed up for these mailing lists in the first place!) with highly emotionally charged messages trying to illicit a reaction to take advantage of voters
FEC should protect us, protect our inboxes
Allowing all political emails to bypass spam filters is, among other things, a security risk. Imagine: A malicious actor could register to run for office and then it would guarantee that their emails were exempt from spam filters.
Swamp my inbox with political spam if you want me to switch to my Yahoo account full time. I’m not married to your service
This is a surefire way to turn people OFF to getting more engaged in the political process at a crucial time when we need a more aware and participating electorate. Please halt all further explorations of Google’s request and pilot program, for the good of democracy.
DO NOT SEND CAMPAIGN INFO TO MY EMAIL
I am absolutely opposed to giving Google permission to allow political information and solicitations to flow through unfettered. I am already inundated with unwanted emails, many of them political. I sincerely do not want more, especially from the myriad of political people and entities that I consider offensive or disturbing.
DO NOT ALLOW Google to bypass spam filters with its advertising.
I do not want email ads outside of my spam folder unless I choose to move them. They are spam, that is why they are in there.
Politicians have exemptions which are self serving from opt in rules that apply to all other industries
No Please do not allow this awful idea to proceed
NO to Google sending political ads to inboxEs
We are already inundated with political messaging on every platform we use
Nobody, most especially politicians, should allowed to get through my email spam filters.
There is already a significant uptick in political adds this year, and regardless of party or candidate they all exasperate divisiveness and hate. We need fewer of these messages not more!
The filters really must stay on. I rely on my gmail. I can’t be bombarded by political emails.
Political actors simply haven’t earned this indulgence and it would be incredibly short sighted of the FEC to grant them.
Freedom of speech does not mean the right to impose unwanted speech on others. There is no right to do that
It could be fairly said that political messaging might be the most unwanted messaging
It is bad enough that they gave themselves a pass on ROBOCALLS but now email as well. Come on. Please don’t permit this to happen as well.
There’s a good reason why these organizations fear their messages ending up in spam folders. It’s because they’re not informative. They do little to nothing to advance genuine discussion of the merits of various candidates. In fact, their volume drowns out and dilutes attention from much more useful political dialog
This is a HORRIFIC idea – My 85 year-old mother gets over 20 emails A DAY from political campaigns – each one screaming that if she doesn’t give today, it will be the end of the USA as we know it. They are all from legitimate campaigns, but not one of them is Opt-in – meaning they are the very definition of SPAM
I can’t think of anything worse for our democracy than allowing these emails to proliferate by not sending them through SPAM filters – Treat them as the SPAM they are!
I want you to know that political spam as well as all spam is unwanted
We need NO more political spam!
There’s a lot more, but that gives you a sense. Understandably, people hate political spam. Many of them also hate that politicians keep exempting themselves from marketing rules that everyone else has to live by.
Honestly, it’s kind of incredible just how much everyone seems to totally hate this proposal and see through it. If the Democrats acted like the Republicans even the tiniest bit in turning every little thing into some giant culture war, they’d be blasting left and right how Republican politicians are literally trying to force their spam into email boxes. It seems like a winning kind of message that Republicans are so desperate to spam you that they’re even pushing bills that would force you to see their spam and stop email providers from filtering it.
Filed Under: email, fec, gmail, political spam, public comments, spam
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