Political emails may be spam, but Gmail wants to free them

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Many people are crazy about Google’s proposal to allow political campaign emails to bypass Gmail users’ spam folders. The dispute arose earlier this summer after Google asked the Federal Election Commission for guidance on the legality of a “pilot program” aimed at making it easier for political organizations to contact voters. The FEC has extended the deadline for public comment to August 5, and the responses so far clearly show that the idea has few fans among Gmail users.

“Honestly, I don’t want any emails from anyone mentioning politics…even my own family members…some of my own family members are now blocked in any way because of their political comments.”

“Please do not allow Google to bypass spam filtering for political emails. Gross exaggeration of political discourse is a serious disincentive to political participation.

“Approving Google’s request will mean the government will perpetuate the predatory campaign practices that have flooded all political parties with scandal over the past decade.”

Admittedly, the circumvention would only be temporary – blocking or unsubscribing would be easy – but the outrage is widespread. Nevertheless, Google’s idea has virtues that are easy to overlook. I would therefore propose an easy compromise that would serve everyone’s interest.

As it stands, Google’s spam filters apply to political email like everything else. If a candidate or party sends a message that the algorithm does not approve, it goes to the spam box. Google’s proposal is that emails from verified political groups, whether or not they pass their algorithm, will go to Gmail inboxes. Each would come with a disclaimer of its political content, and a simple one-click way for the recipient to send all future emails from the same entity to the spam folder.

And spam is the biggest burden on the email world. According to Google’s filing with the FEC, about half of global email traffic is spam. The company says its filters trap unwanted waste at the rate of 10 million per minute.

The problem Google is trying to solve is that many of these blocked emails involve fundraising by candidates and political parties, which means they concern issues close to the heart of democracy.

So what? Spam is spam, right?

Maybe. According to a much-discussed study of the 2020 election cycle by four North Carolina state computer scientists, Gmail’s algorithm flagged Republican emails as spam significantly more often than those from Democrats. The closer the elections approach, the greater the disparity. The effect of the user’s decision to read the email in question – usually an important determinant of spam in the future – was negligible.

Maybe the study results are noise. Or maybe the calls from the GOP, viewed with a neutral eye, are simply more spammy than those sent by the Democrats. But that’s speculation. (An anecdotal glance at the contents of my own non-Gmail inbox suggests that the parties are roughly equal in their affinity for laughable nonsense.) Although the research concludes that Google’s spam algorithms are ( in the words of the authors) left leaning, he also finds that the filters used by Outlook and Yahoo tend to lean to the right.

I think Google is trying to solve a real problem. I just think there is a better solution available.

The real problem is not whether the algorithms are biased. It’s the rapidly shrinking toolbox that candidates use to get their messages across to voters. Democracy is not just about voting. The other half is participating in public debate, weighing conflicting arguments and evidence.

Traditionally, candidates have been part of these arguments, presenting their arguments to voters. But how is it today? Physical direct mail is dying. Gatherings tend to attract not the curious but those who have made up their minds. Media coverage of campaigns is often devoted less to detailed accounts of party messages than to analyzes of who is in the lead.

Email is the mother lode.

Almost everyone has access to it. Most people check frequently. Some are addicted to it. If you’re going to speak directly to voters, this is the most obvious forum. Kudos to Google for openly acknowledging its role in enabling conversation.

Yet we all hate spam, and most line items are junk. To find a way out, let’s go back to the public comments on Google’s proposal. I looked at probably 500-600. A handful of reviewers came up with the same great idea: the company should create a new Gmail folder, which isn’t quite the inbox and isn’t quite spam. Call it, say, “electoral” or maybe “political” – and send messages to the candidate and the party there. Those who want to watch can watch. Those who want to linger can linger. Everyone can ignore it.

As long as Google is doing pilot programs, why not give this one a try? Messages are not marked as spam and yet the user’s inbox remains intact. It’s a win-win.

More writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• No, Joe Manchin, Higher Taxes Don’t Cause Inflation: The Kimberly Clause

• The reform of the electoral law has just taken a big step forward: Jonathan Bernstein

• High fossil fuel valuations are a political weapon: Mark Buchanan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A law professor at Yale University, he is the author, most recently, of “Invisible: the story of the black lawyer who shot down America’s most powerful gangster”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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