Campaign emails will soon get to bypass Gmail’s spam filter and go straight into your inbox. Democracy doesn’t have to be this annoying.
Google says it’s a pilot program — so far, not being used by any other email providers — to surface campaign emails that some people might want to see. But this plan is outrageously hostile to the majority of us, who could be forced to dig through a lot more political spam. Who even asked for this? Why, politicians, of course.
Democracy depends on a free flow of information. But in our inboxes and on our phones, democracy is becoming annoying — and dangerous. We the users don’t want to be overwhelmed by unwanted political emails, text messages and robocalls — nor do we want to be targeted with misinformation and misleading fundraising appeals.
Google’s plan to help politicians spam you gives us an opportunity to rethink what’s gone awry about campaigning online.
“The spam finds its way into my inbox, too,” said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub (D) of the Federal Election Commission, who helps police America’s campaigns. “The politicians who write the rules have exempted themselves from a lot of the rules that could apply,” she told me.
How do we fight back? Rather than give politicians special end runs to our attention, we need to find ways to make politicians more accountable for how they treat our inboxes and our data — and what they say in direct communications with us.
A plan only a politician could love
Google is offering politicians an end run around one of our last refuges online: the spam filters that protect Gmail’s 1.5 billion users from unwanted junk, scams and malware.
Over the next few weeks, emails from campaigns participating in Google’s trial will start to show up directly in everyone’s Gmail “Primary” tab. (That’s the same spot as actually important information like emails from a potential employer or your aunt.) You’ll see a new gray “Unsubscribe” box at the top the first time you open one of these emails. But the system means you’ll have to look at and tap unsubscribe on each of these emails, whose senders have a habit of multiplying every election season.
We the users don’t want to be overwhelmed by unwanted political emails, texts and robocalls. Nor do we want to be targeted with misinformation and misleading fundraising appeals.
You’ll only see the unsubscribe box the first time you open one of these messages — and it will only show up on the Gmail app or website, not on other popular mail apps like Apple’s Mail for iPhones.
We don’t yet know how many politicians will participate or how bad things will get for our inboxes. Google says there’s bipartisan enrollment in its pilot, but eligible senders are still working on meeting its special technical criteria.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Google also put some rules on participants that might discourage some bad behavior. It’s possible that the worst offenders — like campaigns who buy millions of email addresses and spam them all — won’t even try to join the program because they can’t meet the company’s criteria.
But come on, Google: Spam filters are extremely popular, and for good reason. Roughly half of all the email traffic on the internet is of unwanted messages. No other email sender (not even Google itself) is exempt from the Gmail spam filter. That’s because Google’s new policy isn’t rooted in better product design — it’s rooted in politics.
Republican lawmakers have been hammering the tech giant about alleged political bias in its products and this year seized on a study from North Carolina State University to suggest Gmail’s spam filter is biased against Republican emails, making it harder for them to raise money. Never mind that the authors of the study said their work was being misrepresented.
Google vigorously denies that there’s political bias in its spam filter but is still trying to score points in Washington by promoting its new program as a solution to politicians’ immediate fundraising woes. “This was a big gimme to politicians,” said Weintraub, who was a dissenting vote on the decision that deemed Google’s program legal.
“The idea that exceptions [to the spam filter] should start falling in — on what was a fairly flimsy evidentiary record of this really being a problem — seems deeply unfortunate,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, the CEO of the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology.
How to make democracy less annoying — and dangerous — online
The core problem with political communication online is that there’s little accountability. The few existing rules for spam, robocalls and personal data expressly don’t apply to politicians. Even clicking “Unsubscribe” often doesn’t do anything but generate more unwanted messages.
We ought to be able to say no. “We certainly could have better rules on giving people the option of unsubscribing — and doing so in a way that doesn’t require 47 steps or require inputting more information about yourself,” Weintraub said.
Google could help, too, by developing product improvements that start with Gmail users, not politicians. Instead of funneling these emails into our primary inbox, Gmail could give us one-click tools to easily banish them to special folders or tabs. Or even better: Give us a one-time unsubscribe setting to cover all future messages.
Google’s new program does have a good idea buried inside its larger terrible one. Gmail plans to start policing whether participants in its pilot actually complete unsubscribe requests within 24 hours. Google also says it will punish senders who get flagged as spam by more than 5 percent of users.
Then there’s an even bigger problem: How did they get your email or phone number in the first place? Today, campaigns commonly buy voter registration lists and then sell or trade databases, allowing your information to pass to even more hands without your consent. Every new election season becomes a game of whack-a-mole.
The core issue is that politicians have zero qualms about invading our privacy when it comes to helping themselves. When I went on a hunt for what campaigns knew about me ahead of the 2020 election, I uncovered data troves with intimate information about my income, debt, family, religion and gun ownership. The Republican National Committee boasted that it had more than 3,000 data points on every voter.
Campaigns say political speech should be given special protection — and include gathering and selling data about us as a kind of speech. “This is a minefield of First Amendment law,” says Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University — and, unfortunately, current court precedent isn’t in our favor.
“I am extremely sympathetic to people saying, ‘I am deluged and don’t want it any more.’ But we want to make sure we are preserving venues for candidates to speak to their potential constituents,” Weintraub said. “It’s a more complicated question when you are talking about political messaging than when you are talking about people trying to sell you soap.”
California’s privacy law, one of the toughest in the nation, requires that businesses disclose what they know about you, directing them to stop selling it and to delete it. What harm would come to democracy if we make basic personal data laws for corporations apply to politicians, too?
“What we want is strong privacy protections across the board, no matter who it is that’s ultimately accessing that information,” Givens of the Center for Democracy & Technology said. “We want there to be a free flow of information around different campaigns and movements. But the infringement on people’s privacy to identify a target-rich environment is deeply problematic and doesn’t match what users want to see.”
Even more than the volume of spam, what worries election experts is how political emails and text messages can spread misinformation. Using modern microtargeting tools and AI, politicians can send messages designed to hit each voter’s hot buttons. Or worse, they can tailor a lie for every voter.
While social networks are increasingly labeling or taking down posts that are dangerous or misleading, it’s harder to put a harm filter on email.
Right now, the law says Google is not obligated to monitor deceitful messages. And we probably don’t want Google as an email provider getting into the business of checking emails for truth.
But there are other ways to enforce accountability or at least transparency. “They could make public to scholars and journalists the material that is being highly reported as spam as a step toward increased accountability of political actors,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at Syracuse University who has been studying political emails for years. In theory, Google could also label emails known to be coming from the biggest offenders.
But isn’t email communication private? You could argue that politicians in their campaign communications should be held to a higher standard. “Going further, yes, I would also advocate that all political organization emails be made public as well,” Stromer-Galley said.
Ultimately, politicians get to write the rules. And, so far, they don’t see how they’re damaging their own credibility by aligning themselves with the most-reviled people online: spammers.