That’s the short version of the story of Google’s request for the Federal Election Commission to opine on its plan: to let some political entities send unsolicited emails to Gmail users without fear of being sent to spam.
It didn’t matter that thousands of Gmail users who heard about the proposal wrote to the FEC to oppose the idea (record-breaking and near-unanimous opposition, according to one FEC commissioner).
Frankly, it’s not supposed to.
In a meeting last week, the FEC approved what was probably — well, if not a foregone conclusion, probably the betting person’s result: an advisory opinion that told Google, yes, it can go ahead with its plan.
Why? Because the law is the law. And the law is apparently pretty clear here.
In a 4-1 vote (with one abstention), the commission, which is split evenly with three Republicans and three Democrats, said Google’s program would not amount to impermissible corporate campaign contributions, which was really the only sticking point.
As The Washington Post summarized afterward:
“Bipartisan approval from the regulator clears the way for Google to implement the program, which would disable Gmail’s ordinary spam filters for participating candidates and political committees, leaving individual users to mark unwanted emails manually.
The pilot program, for any sender registered with the FEC whose emails do not contain illegal content or other material prohibited by Gmail’s terms of service, is likely to last about six months, although the timing of its implementation was not immediately clear.”
- In April, some Republican politicians complained to the FEC that Google sent Republican fundraising emails in Gmail to spam at a higher rate than Democrats’ emails, and that the disparity was the equivalent of “illegal, corporate in-kind contributions” to Democrats.
- In June, Google CEO Sundar Pichai came to Washington, and pitched top Republicans on what amounted to a 10-word plan: What if we don’t send any political emails to spam?
- In July, Google asked for this advisory opinion; if Republicans were right that letting some political emails skip spam might an in-kind campaign contribution, they letting more politicians also skip spam might possibly have been construed as even more illegal contributions.
- In early August, thousands of Gmail users commented on the proposal, but to no avail.
The ironic elephant in the room, to my way of thinking, is that even though Google got what it asked for from the FEC, it’s quite possible that literally nobody wants this solution.
Gmail users have made their objections clear, even if they mostly didn’t provide a legal basis for the FEC to use to reject the idea.
Google itself might not want to be involved in this at all, except that its hand was more or less forced by Republican objections.
And yet, even the same Republican leadership doesn’t seem assuaged by Google’s action here, as the Post reported that they plan to object to Google’s idea — even as the company just go the go-ahead to try it.
“Google and its algorithms have handed a distinct advantage to Democrat fundraising efforts, resulting in Republicans raising millions of dollars less than they should be able to,” a draft letter from the National Republican Senatorial Committee states, calling Google’s plan,”unacceptable … It comes too late and it’s too risky for campaigns.”
So where does this leave us? Probably in need of a better solution.
Nobody wants spam, and yet we live in a country where political speech is (thankfully) protected. It’s yet another circumstance where the law simply hasn’t kept up with the pace of technology.
That leads to conflict. But, resolving conflict is one of the key reasons why we have political systems to begin with.
“I don’t want to [approve of the program], and it is for the same reasons that all the commenters don’t want to,” said Dara Lindenbaum, vice-chair of the FEC, and the one Democrat who voted in favor. “But I think the law and the commission’s regulations and commission’s precedents permit this. I also don’t want to hamstring innovation and pilot programs.”
That was her dilemma. For everyone else? Get ready either to hit “report as spam” a bit more often, or else maybe to give in and make a few more political contributions.