Political emails are routinely hitting the Gmail promotions tab, and in some cases landing in the spam folder, according to a report published on Wednesday by The Markup.
This has led to charges that Google’s algorithms are “throttling” political emails. And it has raised concerns that Gmail has “the same conflict of interest that exists on social networks,” The Markup writes.
The logic? “If the platforms make it too easy to reach people for free, no one will buy ads,” The Markup continues.
The Markup created a new Gmail account and found that only 11% of the emails it had signed up for from campaigns, think tanks and advocacy groups arrived in the primary inbox. Half hit the Gmail promotions tab.
The Markup notes that while Gmail “does not sell ads in the primary inbox, advertisers can pay for top placement in the social and promotions tabs in free accounts.”
This prompted Economic Liberties, a group that monitors commerce to ensure economic liberty, to charge that “Google is using their monopoly power over people’s inboxes to throttle emails from non-profit groups, campaigns, and even members of Congress to force them to buy more ads.”
“What Google is doing is monopoly 101 and yet another example of why they need to be broken up and regulated,” states Sarah Miller, executive director of Economic Liberties.
Google had not yet responded to a request for comment at deadline.
But Google spokesperson Katie Wattie said in an email to The Markup that Google has not allowed political content in ads since 2016, and that the tabs “help users organize their email,” adding that the mail classifications “automatically adjust to match users’ preferences and actions.”
According to The Markup, however, a coalition of eight progressive groups in the U.S. noticed a drop-off in donations and signatures via Gmail in the spring of 2018. Open rates also purportedly dropped for some.
Lee Carosi Dunn, who then led election sales for Gmail, told coalition members: “You’re not precluded from buying an ad in the promotions tab, or offering a deal,” one participant alleges based on notes taken during in the call, according to The Markup.
If true, it’s not clear whether this reflects an extortion scheme or simply aggressive selling.
Either way, it’s also hard to discern political bias — most of Joe Biden’s emails also ended up in the same promotions tab as Bernie Sanders’, as did 100% of Tom Steyer’s.
And Trump campaign emails apparently were not received at all, despite The Markup’s having signed up for them.
But Kenneth Pennington, a consultant who worked on Beto O’Rourke’s digital campaign, tells The Markup: “The fact that Gmail has so much control over our democracy and what happens and who raises money is frightening.”
According to The Markup, 63% of the emails sent by the Pete Buttigieg campaign were delivered to the primary inbox. Andrew Yang’s were second, with 47% arriving.
Yet 28% of the Buttigieg emails went to the spam folder, as did 49% of Yang’s.
One has to wonder if this is less the fault of Gmail than of the campaigns themselves.
Still, even the presumably sophisticated campaigns of Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders had high percentages hitting the promotions folder—83% for Bloomberg and 98% for Sanders.
Of course, only six Bloomberg emails were received at all, and 11 were received from Sanders.
Also, while The Markup notes that other email services also have category tabs, it apparently did not compare their inbox results against those of Gmail. Gmail is the elephant in the room, with 1.5 billion users worldwide.
So it’s Gmail that is in the hot seat today.
Economic Liberties is demanding that the DOG, FTC and state AG add this “monopolistic behavior” by Google to their antitrust investigations.