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RNC sued Google for filtering spam but never used Gmail tool that bypasses filter

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Getty Images | pagadesign

Google is ending a pilot program that let political emails bypass the Gmail spam filter, and it says it hasn’t decided whether to convert the pilot into a more long-term option for political campaigns. The Republican National Committee (RNC) sued Google in October 2022 over its spam-filtering practices but never participated in the pilot program, Google said Monday in a motion to dismiss the RNC’s lawsuit.

“The Pilot Program was made available to all eligible participants on a non-partisan basis” and “is scheduled to run through January 31, 2023,” Google’s court filing said.

The Federal Election Commission approved Google’s pilot program in August 2022 amid Republican claims of Google bias. “As the Complaint makes clear, the RNC has chosen not to participate in Google’s FEC-approved Pilot Program,” Google’s motion to dismiss said.

The RNC’s lawsuit in US District Court for the Eastern District of California alleged that “Google has relegated millions of RNC emails en masse to potential donors’ and supporters’ spam folders during pivotal points in election fundraising and community building.”

Google said it hasn’t decided yet whether to implement a long-term program for political campaigns. “As per our request for guidance from the FEC, the pilot will end on January 31st and we will evaluate appropriate next steps,” Google told Ars. “During its run, this program had bipartisan participation from 100+ political committees from across the political spectrum. As we digest feedback on the program, we will continue looking for ways to refine and enhance the Gmail experience.”

US election agency rejected RNC complaint

In addition to filing a lawsuit, the RNC lodged a complaint with the FEC claiming that Google violated US law by using Gmail’s spam filter on Republican campaign emails and that Gmail’s spam filtering amounted to “illegal in-kind contributions made by Google to Biden For President and other Democrat candidates.”

The FEC rejected the RNC complaint in a decision last week. The FEC, an independent agency of the US government, said it found “no reason to believe” that Google made prohibited in-kind corporate contributions. “The available information indicates that Google’s spam filter is in place for commercial, rather than electoral, purposes,” the FEC said.

Google pointed to the FEC decision in the statement it provided to Ars today. “As the FEC’s recent bipartisan decision confirmed, we don’t filter emails for political purposes, and like the FEC complaint, this suit is without merit. We will keep investing in spam-filtering technologies that protect people from unwanted messages while still allowing senders to reach the inboxes of users who want to see those messages,” the company said.

Under the pilot program that ends next week, “emails sent by program participants are not subject to forms of spam detection to which they would otherwise be subject,” Google’s motion to dismiss said. “Instead, so long as participants’ emails do not contain material prohibited by Gmail’s terms and policies (such as phishing attacks, malware, or illegal content) and comply with other program requirements, the placement of those emails into users’ inbox folders or spam folders relies on direct feedback from users who receive the emails.”

Urging the court to throw out the RNC’s lawsuit, Google’s motion said that “Gmail’s spam filtering policies apply equally to emails from all senders, whether they are politically affiliated or not. Indeed, the Federal Election Commission has already rejected the RNC’s political-discrimination theory, finding that Gmail filters spam ‘to enhance the value of the Gmail product,’ not ‘to influence any election for federal office.'”

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