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

If a candidate or party sends a message that the algorithm doesn’t approve, into the spam box it goes. Google’s proposal is that emails from verified political groups, whether or not they pass they algorithm, will go to Gmail inboxes. — Dreamstime/TNS

Lots of people are hopping mad about Google’s proposal to allow political campaign emails to bypass the spam folders of Gmail users. The dispute arose earlier this summer after Google asked the Federal Elections Commission for advice on the legality of a “pilot program” to make it easier for political organisations to contact voters. The FEC has extended the deadline for public comment until Aug 5, and the responses so far make plain that the idea has few fans among Gmail users.

A sampling:

“Honestly I don’t want any email from anyone which mention politics ... even my own family members ... some of my own family members are now blocked in all ways because of their political comments.”

“Please do not allow Google to bypass spam filtering for political emails. The gross exaggeration of political discourse is a severe discouragement to political participation.”

“Approving Google’s request will be government perpetuation of predatory campaign practices that have inundated all political parties with scandal in the last decade.”

You get the idea.

True, the bypassing would only be temporary — blocking or unsubscribing would be easy — but the outrage is widespread. Nevertheless, Google’s idea possesses virtues that are easy to overlook. I’d therefore propose an easy compromise that would serve everyone’s interest.

As matters currently stand, Google’s spam filters apply to political emails just as they do to everything else. If a candidate or party sends a message that the algorithm doesn’t approve, into the spam box it goes. Google’s proposal is that emails from verified political groups, whether or not they pass they algorithm, will go to Gmail inboxes. Each would be accompanied by a warning of its political content, and a simple way for the recipient, with one click, to send all future emails from the same entity to the spam folder.

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

The problem Google is trying to solve is that lots of those blocked emails involve fundraising by candidates and political parties, meaning they concern matters near the core of democracy.

So what? Spam is spam, right?

Maybe. According to a much-discussed study of the 2020 election cycle by four computer scientists at North Carolina State, Gmail’s algorithm flagged Republican emails as spam a lot more often than it did those from Democrats. The closer the election came, the greater the disparity. The effect of the user’s decision to read the email in question — usually an important determinant of spam going forward — was negligible.

Perhaps the study’s results are noise. Or perhaps the GOP’s appeals, viewed by a neutral eye, are simply spammier than those sent by Democrats. But that’s speculation. (An anecdotal glance at the contents of my own non-Gmail in-box suggest that the parties are roughly equal in their affinity for risible nonsense.) Although the research does conclude that Google’s spam algorithms are (in the authors’ words) left-leaning, it also finds that the filters used by Outlook and Yahoo tend to lean to the right.

I do think Google is trying to solve a genuine problem. I just think there’s a better solution available.

The genuine problem isn’t whether the algorithms are biased. It’s the rapid shrinking of the toolbox that candidates use to get their messages to voters. Democracy isn’t just the casting of ballots. The other half is the participation in public debate, the weighing of competing arguments and evidence.

Traditionally, candidates have been a part of these arguments, taking their cases to the voters. But how nowadays is that to be done? Physical direct mail is dying. Rallies tend to attract not the curious but those whose minds are made up. News coverage of campaigns is often devoted less to detailed accounts of party messages than to analyses of who’s in the lead.

Email is the mother lode.

Almost everyone has access to it. Most people check frequently. A few are addicted to it. If you’re going to talk directly to voters, it’s the most obvious forum. Plaudits to Google for openly recognising its role in enabling the conversation.

Yet we all hate spam, and most campaign stuff is junk. To find a way out, let’s go back to the public comments on Google’s proposal. I’ve reviewed probably 500-600 of them. A handful of commenters have offered the same good idea: The company should create a new Gmail folder, one that isn’t quite the in-box and isn’t quite spam. Call it, say, “electoral” or perhaps “political” — and send the candidate and party messages there. Those who want to look can look. Those who want to linger can linger. Everyone else can ignore it.

As long as Google is doing pilot programs, why not give this one a try? The messages aren’t marked spam and yet the user’s in-box remains pristine. That’s a win-win. – Bloomberg Opinion/Tribune News Service

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