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Political campaign emails can bypass Google’s spam filters under a newly approved pilot project

<i>David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images</i><br/>On August 11
Bloomberg via Getty Images
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images
On August 11

By Fredreka Schouten

Federal election regulators voted Thursday to allow Google to proceed with a plan to make it easier for campaign emails to bypass spam filters.

Google’s proposal to run a pilot project changing the filters for political emails came after intense Republican criticism that spam filters were biased against conservatives, a charge the tech giant denies. In a sign of public disgust with spam, the Federal Election Commission received thousands of public comments urging it to deny the request.

But a majority of the six-member commission decided that Google’s project did not constitute an improper in-kind political contribution that would violate federal campaign finance laws.

“I don’t want to, and it’s for the same reasons that all the commenters don’t want to,” Dara Lindenbaum, a Democratic commissioner said before joining the three Republicans on the panel to vote in favor of Google’s request. “But I think the law and the commission regulations and commission precedent permit this.”

The pilot program will allow campaign emails to bypass the company’s algorithms for sorting emails into spam. Instead, political emails will land in spam folders only if users take action to mark them as spam.

Google described the proposal as a way for the company to better serve its customers, including those who send bulk emails. “This is for a commercial purpose,” Claire Rajan, the election law attorney representing Google, told commissioners Thursday. “It’s not for an electoral purpose.”

In June, a group of Republican senators — including South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber — introduced a bill that would prohibit tech firms from “using algorithms that are biased against conservatives.”

Thursday, Rajan told the commissioners that there is “no current bias in the system in the way that the filters operate.”

The project will be open to candidates’ campaign committees, political parties and leadership PACs, which are a form of political action committee typically associated with federal officeholders.

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