Spam email from politicians is coming to Gmail. Here’s how to fight it.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Campaign emails will soon bypass Gmail’s spam filter and go straight to your inbox. Democracy doesn’t have to be so troublesome.

Prepare for a possible medium-term collapse in your inbox.

Emails from certain federal candidates, political parties, and political action committees will soon be allowed to bypass Gmail’s spam filters and go straight to your inbox. To ban them, you need to click a new unsubscribe button on each individual sender. (I show you how in the video below.)

According to Google, it’s a pilot program that no other email provider is using to surface campaign emails that some people want to see. But this plan faces the majority of us with unabashed hostility, who might be forced to wade through a lot more political spam. Who even asked for it? politicians of course.

We the users

How technology fails us – and ideas to improve it. Continue reading.

Democracy depends on a free flow of information. But in our inboxes and on our phones, democracy is becoming a nuisance – and dangerous. We, the users, don’t want to be overwhelmed by unsolicited political emails, text messages, and robocalls—nor do we want to be targeted with misinformation and misleading calls for donations.

Google’s plan to help politicians spam you gives us an opportunity to reconsider what went wrong with online campaigns.

“The spam finds its way into my inbox, too,” said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub (D) of the Federal Election Commission, which helps monitor America’s election campaign. “The politicians who write the rules have exempted themselves from many rules that might apply,” she told me.

How do we defend ourselves? Instead of turning our attention to politicians, we need to find ways to make politicians more accountable for how they handle 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 a line under one of our last safe havens on the web: the spam filters that protect Gmail’s 1.5 billion users from unwanted junk, scams and malware.

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For the next few weeks, emails from campaigns participating in Google’s trial will appear directly in Gmail’s Primary tab. (This is the same place as really important information, like emails from a potential employer or your aunt.) When you first open one of these emails, you’ll see a new gray “Unsubscribe” box at the top. But the system means you have to look at and tap “unsubscribe” at each of those emails, whose senders have a habit of multiplying every election season.

We, the users, don’t want to be overwhelmed by unsolicited political emails, SMS, and robocalls. We also do not want to be confronted with misinformation and misleading calls for donations.

You’ll only see the unsubscribe box the first time you open one of these messages – and it only appears in the Gmail app or website, not other popular email apps like Apple’s Mail for iPhones.

We don’t yet know how many politicians will attend or how bad it will be for our inboxes. Google says there is bipartisan registration for its pilot, but eligible senders are still working to meet specific technical criteria.

If there’s a bright spot, then Google also imposed some rules on participants that might discourage bad behavior. It’s possible that the worst offenders — like campaigns that 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 with good reason. About half of all e-mail traffic on the Internet consists of unsolicited 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 hammered the tech giant into its products for alleged political bias, resorting this year to a North Carolina State University study that suggests Gmail’s spam filter is biased against Republican email, making it harder for them to monetize collect. Never mind that the study’s authors said their work was misrepresented.

Google strenuously denies that its spam filter is politically biased, but is still trying to score points in Washington by touting its new program as a solution to politicians’ immediate fundraising problems. “This was a great gift to politicians,” said Weintraub, who voted against the decision deeming Google’s program legal.

“The idea that exceptions [to the spam filter] should begin — which was pretty weak evidence that this really is a problem — seems deeply unfortunate,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, CEO of the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology.

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How to make online democracy less of a nuisance – and dangerous

The core problem of political communication on the Internet is that there is little accountability. The few existing rules for spam, robocalls and personal data expressly do not apply to politicians. Even clicking on “unsubscribe” often does nothing, except that more unwanted messages are generated.

We should be able to say no. “We could certainly have better rules to give people the ability to opt out — and do it in a way that doesn’t require 47 steps or requiring them to enter more information about themselves,” Weintraub said.

Google could also help by developing product improvements that target Gmail users, not politicians. Instead of directing those emails to our primary inbox, Gmail could give us one-click tools to simply relegate them to special folders or tabs. Or better yet, give us a one-time unsubscribe preference to cover all future messages.

Google’s new program has a good idea hidden inside its bigger, terrible one. Gmail plans to begin monitoring whether participants in the pilot actually complete unsubscribe requests within 24 hours. Google also says it will penalize senders who are flagged as spam by more than 5 percent of users.

Then there’s an even bigger problem: how did they even get your email address or phone number? Campaigns today commonly buy voter registration lists and then sell or trade databases, allowing your information to get into even more hands without your consent. Each new election season becomes a mole game.

The core problem is that politicians have no qualms about invading our privacy when it comes to helping themselves. As I researched what campaigners knew about me ahead of the 2020 election, I uncovered data treasures containing intimate information about my income, debt, family, religion, and gun ownership. The Republican National Committee boasted more than 3,000 data points on each voter.

Campaigns say that political speech should be given extra protection – and involves collecting and selling data about us as a form of speech. “This is a First Amendment law minefield,” says Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University — and unfortunately, the current precedent is not in our favor.

How politicians get your email address, phone number and other personal information

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“I have a lot of sympathy for people who say, ‘I’m overwhelmed and I don’t want it anymore.’ But we want to make sure we get places where candidates can talk to their potential voters,” Weintraub said. “It’s a more complicated question when you’re talking about political messages than it is when you’re talking about people trying to sell you soap.”

California’s privacy law, one of the strictest in the country, requires companies to disclose what they know about you and directs them to stop selling and delete it. What would harm democracy if we allowed basic corporate privacy laws to apply to politicians as well?

“What we want is strong privacy across the board, no matter who ultimately accesses that information,” said Givens of the Center for Democracy & Technology. “We want a free flow of information on different campaigns and movements. But violating people’s privacy to identify a target-rich environment is deeply problematic and not what users want to see.”

Even more than the volume of spam, election experts worry about how political emails and text messages can spread misinformation. With modern microtargeting tools and AI, politicians can send messages designed to hit every voter’s hot-button. Or worse, they can tailor a lie for every voter.

As social networks increasingly flag or remove dangerous or misleading posts, it’s harder to damage-filter email.

At the moment, the law says that Google is not required to monitor fraudulent messages. And we probably don’t want Google as an email provider to jump into the business of checking email for truth.

But there are other ways to enforce accountability, or at least transparency. “They could make the material, which is often reported as spam, available to academics and journalists as a step towards increased accountability of political actors,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at Syracuse University who has been involved with the spam for years dealing with political emails. Theoretically, Google could also flag emails known to come from the biggest bad guys.

But isn’t email communication private? One could argue that politicians should have a higher standard in their campaign communications. “To go further, yes, I would also advocate that all emails from political organizations be made public as well,” Stromer-Galley said.

Ultimately, politicians make the rules. And so far, they don’t see how they’re damaging their own credibility by aligning themselves with the Internet’s most reviled people: the spammers.

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