- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2022

A top Republican lawmaker has introduced legislation that would ban Google and other email platforms from filtering campaign emails into spam folders, in the latest bid by Congress to crack down on what critics see as Big Tech’s political bias.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said the measure would prohibit email platforms from using filtering algorithms on campaign email if the candidate is running for federal office.

“Gmail and other email services’ inboxing practices are a black box to consumers, and they operate with little accountability,” said Mr. Thune, the Republican whip. “This legislation would help ensure that Americans, not Big Tech, are making the decisions on what campaign communications they want to receive.”

Mr. Thune, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on communications, technology and internet issues, drafted the bill after a recent North Carolina State University study found Google, the nation’s largest email platform, flagged more Republican campaign emails as spam than Democratic emails during the 2020 election season.

The same study, released in March, found Outlook and Yahoo filtered more Democratic emails into spam folders. 

“We observed that the spam-filtering algorithms of different email services indeed exhibit biases towards different political affiliations,” the study authors wrote.

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Google’s Gmail is the nation’s third most popular app and served as the email platform for 1.8 billion people in 2020. Yahoo, by comparison, served 224 million email users and Microsoft Outlook provided email to 400 million people in 2020, according to industry figures.

Google denies its systems screen email traffic to promote or delete particular political persuasions.

A spokesman from the search engine giant told The Washington Times, “We do not filter emails based on political affiliation and we’re working on increasing transparency data for bulk senders, including campaigns, in our suite of tools for senders.” The spokesman said Google planned to work with lawmakers and campaigns “to ensure Gmail is providing users with the best experience.”

Mr. Thune’s measure has won the support of 27 Republican Senate colleagues, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Mr. McConnell will control the Senate floor agenda in 2023 if Republicans retake the majority after November’s midterm elections.

Mr. Thune’s leadership position, coupled with the backing of Mr. McConnell and a potential Republican Senate takeover, increases the likelihood that Congress could begin voting as early as next year on the legislation, as well as on other bills Republicans say are needed to combat what they view as long-standing political bias from Big Tech platforms.

Sending a message

Whether the measures would survive a veto from President Biden is another matter, but backers say just moving the legislation sends a message to Google, Facebook and other technology giants.

“I’ve long believed that Congress should hold Big Tech accountable to the users who rely on its platforms, for everything from email to social media,” Mr. Thune said. “And empower those consumers to make their own online decisions, free from Big Tech’s heavy hand.”  

Mr. Thune has introduced two related measures aimed at combating bias on social media platforms.

One measure would require Facebook, Twitter and other big platforms to notify users when they are using algorithms to filter what they see on their own pages, which is often called a “filter bubble.” The legislation would require social media companies to give users an option to turn off the algorithm.

A second bill would require social media platforms to provide users with an avenue to appeal the removal of content they post online and require the platforms to issue twice-yearly “transparency reports” on the posts they have removed or deemphasized on their sites.

Mr. Thune’s legislation is the latest effort in Congress to try to assert federal control over the fast-growing and largely ungoverned online industry.

Although conservatives have complained loudly about a liberal bias in left-leaning Silicon Valley, the desire to rein in Big Tech crosses party lines.

Although the email filtering legislation lacks Democratic co-sponsors, other bills targeting the tech industry have bipartisan support. 

The “filter bubble” legislation has the backing of Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Mark R. Warner of Virginia. The transparency legislation is supported by Mr. Schatz and three additional Democrats — Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Ben Ray Luhan of New Mexico.

Last month, a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers introduced legislation in each chamber aimed at ending the tech giants’ monopoly over digital advertising. The bill would ban Google, Facebook and other large digital advertising companies from owning more than one part of the digital ad “ecosystem,” and it would block them from playing dual roles in the advertising process.

While support for Big Tech bills has been largely bipartisan, the legislation has faced resistance in both the House and Senate, particularly from lawmakers who represent California, where much of the Big Tech industry is located. Among the Californians who have steered clear of backing some of the bills is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader who is poised to become speaker in the increasingly likely event that Republicans win a majority of House seats in November.

Mr. McCarthy instead backs legislation that would roll back liability protections for Big Tech platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which are accused of censoring conservative content. 

Mr. Thune’s latest legislation targeting Google’s campaign email filtering record drew immediate criticism from the tech industry, which warned that the legislation would create privacy problems and prevent email platforms from marking any campaign emails as spam.

TechDirt editor and CEO Mike Masnick said the university study found that unmarking campaign emails as spam largely corrected the problem. 

“In short, what the Republicans are actually standing for here is ‘more spam for everyone,’ and not allowing spam filters to work properly,” Mr. Masnick said.

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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