Google LLC (Google) will not make a prohibited contribution by offering a pilot program that excludes emails sent by federal candidate committees, party committees, and leadership PACs from its spam filters.
Google is publicly traded company that provides its email platform, Gmail, to all users (including both political and non-political organizations and individuals) at no cost. Google plans to launch a pilot program involving candidate committees, party committees, and leadership PACs to test new spam filtering features regarding bulk email senders to Gmail addresses.
Eligible participants that opt into the pilot will be included at no cost and on a non-partisan basis. Bulk emails those participants send to Gmail users will not be detected by Gmail’s spam algorithm. Rather, whether bulk emails are classified as spam will be based on direct feedback from the user. The first email from each sender will include a notification asking the user if they wish to continue receiving messages from the sender. If the user opts out, subsequent messages from that sender would be placed in the user’s spam folder. Participants in the pilot program will also receive information about the messages that land in users’ inboxes as opposed to spam folders. Based on feedback from participants and users, Google may or may not continue, discontinue, or expand the pilot’s test features.
Google states the “pilot program achieves a number of commercial goals,” and its purpose is to test whether the features employed enabled users to receive more wanted mail from bulk senders without degrading the user experience. Google notes it chose to start the pilot program with eligible political committees instead of other industries because it can confirm their registration with the Commission and the upcoming election season is expected to bring sustained engagement by an identifiable group of bulk senders.
The Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) and Commission regulations prohibit corporations from making contributions to federal candidates, political party organizations, and political committees that make contributions to federal candidates and political party committees. The provision of any goods or services without charge or at a charge that is less than the usual and normal charge is an in-kind contribution.
The Commission has determined that a corporation may provide its basic service free of charge to federal candidates and political committees when it would provide the service in the ordinary course of business and on the same terms and conditions to all similarly situated persons. While the pilot participants would have their bulk emails filtered for spam using the new user preference mechanism, these would be mere modifications to the free spam filtering service provided to all users, rather than a service that customarily has a separate charge. Google also states that it has a regular business practice of providing similar resources at no cost to enhance the experience of its users.
The Commission found that, while Google would be modifying its service only for certain political committees, it would be doing so for commercial as opposed to political reasons. In Advisory Opinion 2018-11 (Microsoft Corporation), the Commission found a corporation may offer political committees a program of enhanced online security on a non-partisan basis at no charge, because doing so would protect its brand reputation and provide valuable data on security threats. Similarly, the Commission found Google’s pilot program would serve its commercial interests in protecting its brand reputation and obtaining valuable data on how to enhance its product. Also, based on the results of the pilot program, Google may extend it to others, including government entities, entities involved in providing government services, senders of class-action notices and non-profit organizations.
The Commission found Google appears to be offering the pilot program to all similarly situated entities for commercial and not political reasons and these reasons reflect the ordinary course of business. Therefore, the proposed pilot program is permissible under the Act and Commission regulations and would not result in the making of a prohibited in-kind contribution.
Date Issued: August 11, 2022; Length: 9 pages
11 CFR § 100.52(d)(1)
Gift, subscription, loan, advance or deposit of money
11 CFR § 114.2(b)
Prohibition on contributions by corporation