Republican senators laid into a Google executive at the Capitol Wednesday over allegations that the company’s filters target GOP emails as spam. It quickly turned confrontational.
The Senate Republican Steering Committee, the policy arm of the Senate GOP, had invited Google’s chief legal officer, Kent Walker, to discuss a recent study that found the company has disproportionately filtered Republican lawmakers’ emails into hidden spam folders compared to emails from Democratic lawmakers. Walker said there is no bias in how Google deals with spam.
The group lunch grew unusually tense, according to three people familiar with the meeting, granted anonymity to discuss private matters.
“The lunch was spirited,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), one of the more vocal attendees. “Google deflected, refused to provide any data, repeatedly refused to answer direct questions.”
The senators’ furor is part of the broader conservative crusade against the major tech companies, who they claim routinely stifle right-wing speech. The companies, including Facebook and Google, have denied these allegations, while researchers have found that there is no evidence that the social media platforms disproportionately take action against content from conservatives.
The meeting’s host was Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Several NRSC staffers and Republican political strategists were in attendance, an unusual dynamic given the traditional Capitol Hill separation between policymaking and politics.
One senator who attended the meeting, granted anonymity to describe the gathering, said it was “short of hostile, but confrontational.” GOP lawmakers have laid into Google at public hearings, but the senator said the private meeting was even more heated.
“They want to come and explain and dispute and do a tutorial, just as I expected they would do,” the senator said. “But their problem was that we weren’t confined to five minutes or congeniality.”
The researchers behind the North Carolina State University study have denied that Google’s filtering is related to political discrimination, concluding it has more to do with factors like past user behavior.
Walker reiterated to senators that filtering bias is unrelated to political affiliation and pointed out that the North Carolina State researchers said the discrepancies likely have to do with Gmail’s weighing of “past user behavior,” meaning Gmail marks emails as spam based on how users have marked emails before.
The same study showed that Outlook and Yahoo disproportionately flagged Democrats’ emails as spam.
“We appreciated the opportunity to speak with Senators yesterday and are always open to feedback on our services. There is no political bias in how Gmail deals with spam — it applies the same rules to all bulk emails,” said Google spokesperson Julie Tarallo McAlister. “Like most modern email providers, we seek to filter out spam to provide a better experience for users. As always, we plan to follow up with Senators on the specific concerns raised.”
Senators pressed Walker to tell them what percentage of lawmakers’ emails make it to regular Gmail inboxes and grew more frustrated when he was unable to provide those exact numbers.
“I think it was a pretty significant wake-up call for the leadership at Google that we are not screwing around and we’re not taking it anymore,” the same senator added. “We’re not going to participate in tutorials and nonsense.”
The meeting comes as some Republican senators co-sponsor legislation aimed at reining in the power of the largest tech companies, including Google. That legislation, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, is still waiting on a floor vote in the upper chamber.
Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he doesn’t believe the meeting “went too well for Google.”
“We’ll see what happens,” Graham said.