FEC Says Google’s Email Filter Did Not Intentionally Target GOP

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has dismissed a complaint from Republican groups alleging that Google unfairly targeted GOP fundraising campaigns by marking emails as spam at a far higher rate than those sent by Democrats.

The FEC sent a letter to Google last week notifying the company that the government “found no reason to believe” the Republican allegations. The agency said any discrepancy between Republican and Democratic fundraising emails being marked as spam was inadvertent, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“The Commission’s bipartisan decision to dismiss this complaint reaffirms that Gmail does not filter emails for political purposes,” Google spokesman José Castañeda told WSJ. “We’ll continue to invest in our Gmail industry-leading spam filters because, as the FEC notes, they’re important to protecting people’s inboxes from receiving unwanted, unsolicited, or dangerous messages.”

The Republican National Committee (RNC) filed an FEC complaint against Google in April. The GOP group cited a March 2022 study by North Carolina State University’s Department of Computer Science researchers.

“The study’s findings are shocking,” the RNC complaint says. “All three services displayed some disparity, with Outlook marking Democrat emails as spam approximately 27% more than Republican emails, and Yahoo marking Democrat emails as spam approximately 14% more. In comparison, however, Google’s Gmail truly stands apart, as it marked Republican emails as spam at more than an 820% higher rate than it marked emails from Democrat candidates.”

“Moreover, Gmail’s disparity increased as Election Day neared, with the percentage of Republican candidate emails marked as spam going up, while the percentage of Democrat emails marked as spam stayed constant,” it continues. “The study also finds that Gmail continued to mark Republican emails as spam even after users opened and read similar messages. This means that Gmail effectively blocked users from receiving messages from Republican candidates, even after those users took actions indicating that they wanted to receive them.”

The FEC concluded that the disparity was not intentional; it happened as a result of Google’s spam filter that is meant to target malware, phishing scams, and other abusive or dangerous online behavior.

“Though the NCSU Study appears to demonstrate a disparate impact from Google’s spam filter, it explicitly states that its authors have ‘no reason to believe that there were deliberate attempts from these email services to create these biases to influence the voters,’” the FEC said in its letter to Google, according to WSJ.

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