Republican senators plan on introducing a bill today that seeks to stop email providers from automatically sending campaign messages to the spam filter, arguing it’s a form of censorship.
US Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) brought up the issue in a press conference, saying(Opens in a new window) his legislation would “go after and prohibit” major email providers from “censoring or discriminating against political emails.”
How the bill would work remains unclear. But Thune pointed fingers at Google’s Gmail service by citing a study(Opens in a new window) from North Carolina State University, which examined whether the spam filters for major email providers had a bias against campaign messages from political candidates sent during the 2020 election.
The study found: “Gmail marked 59.3% more emails from the right candidates as spam compared to the left candidates, whereas Outlook and Yahoo marked 20.4% and 14.2% more emails from left candidates as spam compared to the right candidates, respectively.”
Other Republican Senators have also pounced(Opens in a new window) on the study as evidence Gmail is targeting GOP campaign emails. But ironically, the authors behind the research say Republican lawmakers have taken their findings out of context.
One of the authors told(Opens in a new window) The Washington Post their study found the spam filter bias of Gmail decreases significantly once a user begins manually marking and unmarking email messages as spam. In addition, the study found no evidence Google was deliberating trying to filter out email messages to influence the 2020 election.
Importantly, the study noted it’s possible users themselves were influencing Gmail’s spam-filtering algorithms by manually flagging certain campaign emails they receive as spam. Hence, Gmail may have been filtering out more GOP emails during the 2020 election because many users were tired of the campaign messaging.
Google says users can play a major role in guiding its AI-powered Gmail spam filters. “User feedback, such as when a user marks a certain email as spam or signals they want a sender’s emails in their inbox, is key to this filtering process, and our filters learn from user actions,” it wrote(Opens in a new window) in a blog post last month defending its spam-filtering approach from GOP criticism.
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Nevertheless, Thune said the spam-filtering bias could still prevent Republican lawmakers from reaching voters. “This is a big problem. We need more transparency out of these social media platforms, more accountability and we want to make sure they have to disclose their practices, and they they are not discriminating against any political party or political candidate,” he said.
It’s a point the study itself seems to agree with. “It is imperative for the email services to audit their SFAs (spam filtering algorithms) to ensure that any properties of the sender that they consider in determining whether any given email is spam or not are not, unknowingly, putting one side at an advantage compared to the other,” the authors wrote.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in last month’s blog post, the company wrote that its spam filtering algorithms are ultimately designed to deliver the email users want to see. “We will continue to explore ways to empower users to further personalize their spam filtering, while also enabling bulk senders to better identify themselves and improve inbox deliverability,” the tech giant added.
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