Prepare for a midterm meltdown in your inbox.
Emails from specific federal candidates, parties, and political action committees will soon be allowed to bypass Gmail’s spam filters and enter your inbox. To unsubscribe from each sender, you must click a new unsubscribe button.
Google says it’s a pilot program — so far, no other email providers are using it — to surface campaign emails that some people might want to see. However, this plan is blatantly hostile to the majority of us, who may be forced to wade through even more political spam. Who even requested this? Of course, politicians.
The free flow of information is essential to democracy. But democracy is becoming annoying — and dangerous — in our inboxes and on our phones. We, the users, do not want to be bombarded with unwanted political emails, text messages, and robocalls, nor do we want to be targeted with misleading fundraising appeals.
Google’s plan to assist politicians in spamming you provides us with an opportunity to reconsider what has gone wrong with online campaigning.
How do we respond? Rather than giving politicians special access to our attention, we must find ways to hold them accountable for how they treat our inboxes and data — as well as what they say in direct communications with us.
Google is attempting to circumvent one of our last online refuges: the spam filters that protect Gmail’s 1.5 billion users from unwanted junk, scams, and malware.
Emails from campaigns participating in Google’s trial will begin to appear directly in everyone’s Gmail “Primary” tab over the next few weeks. When you open one of these emails for the first time, you’ll notice a new gray “Unsubscribe” box at the top. However, the system requires you to look at and unsubscribe from each of these emails, which have a habit of multiplying during election season.
We, the users, do not want to be bombarded with unsolicited political emails, texts, and robocalls. We also do not want to be targeted with misinformation and deceptive fundraising appeals.
If there is a silver lining, it is that Google imposed some rules on participants, which may deter some bad behavior. The worst offenders, such as campaigns that buy millions of email addresses and spam them all, may not even try to join the program because they do not meet the company’s criteria.
But, Google, come on: For good reason, spam filters are extremely popular. Unwanted messages account for roughly half of all email traffic on the internet. No other email sender (including Google) is immune to the Gmail spam filter. That’s because Google’s new policy is based on politics rather than better product design.
Republican lawmakers have been hammering the tech giant about alleged political bias in its products, and this year seized on a North Carolina State University study to suggest Gmail’s spam filter is biased against Republican emails, making it more difficult for them to raise funds. Never mind that the study’s authors stated that their work was being misrepresented.
Google vigorously denies that its spam filter contains political bias, but it is still attempting to score points in Washington by promoting its new program as a solution to politicians’ immediate fundraising problems. “This was a big gimme to politicians,” said Weintraub, who voted against the decision that legalized Google’s program.
The main issue with online political communication is the lack of accountability. Politicians are specifically exempt from the few existing rules regarding spam, robocalls, and personal data. Even clicking “Unsubscribe” frequently results in more unwanted messages.
Google could also assist by developing product enhancements that focus on Gmail users rather than politicians. Instead of sending these emails to our primary inbox, Gmail could provide us with one-click tools to move them to special folders or tabs. Better yet, provide us with a one-time unsubscribe option that covers all future messages.
Google’s new program contains a good idea buried within a larger bad one. Gmail intends to begin monitoring whether pilot participants 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.