Industry News & Analysis

Tulsi Gabbard Sues Google

Today Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign sued Google for $50 million. Why? Because during the night of the first debate Google disabled her “advertising account” (I’m assuming she means adwords) preventing her from being able to purchase ads to direct searchers to her website. There’s also a paragraph in there that they’re “disproportionally putting her email into the spam folder.”

Image of a courthouse with scales of justice.

I read the complaint in the Gabbard suit (available from the NY Times). It’s kinda hard to read in a few places. The lawyers make statements that are clearly not factual (the First Amendment applies to Google advertising accounts) and others that are irrelevant (she’s a skilled surfer)

What I get from it is that Gabbard’s campaign was buying up lots of ads on Google the night of the first debate. Then their account was suspended. Google responses to the campaign as quoted in the complaint don’t look that suspicious to me. In fact, they tell me that Google saw some activity on their adwords account that was out of line with their history and so the account was suspended until someone could investigate. Google’s algorithms hate change and this isn’t surprising. Google had bland, meaningless boilerplates like most companies and the campaign didn’t like that.

The thing is, no where in this does she assert that Google delisted her website or did anything to change her organic search results. All she asserts is that they suspended her ability to buy advertising. If folks really were searching for Gabbard, surely they’d find her website, and her wikipedia article. They might not see any paid ads for her site, but I’m not sure why “not being able to buy advertising” is a first amendment issue.

She’s also asserting her email is being treated unfairly because it’s being filtered to the spam folder “more than other Democratic candidates.” What if the reason for that is she’s spamming more than other Democratic candidates? In any case, multiple laws protect the companies doing the filtering. As long as the filtering is being done in good faith, the companies are statutorily protected from legal liability. In fact, there are 2 decades of case and statutory law saying that mailbox providers have every right to filter or block mail as they see fit. I’ve detailed at least half a dozen cases here on the blog over the last few years – even going to courtrooms and watching the proceedings.

I am certainly not Google’s biggest fan, and find a lot of what they do problematic and intrusive. But in this case, I really can’t see what they’ve done wrong. Gabbard’s complaint boils down to Google inhibited her freedom of speech by prohibiting her from buying advertising on their during a specific 24 hour period (a lot of folks are saying her account was suspended for 6 hours, but I don’t know where that figure came from). I don’t really think the First Amendment grants us the right to buy advertising on a private ad network at a specific time.

Are there bigger issues with large social media companies and how they impact speech and our ability to communicate? Yes. Absolutely. There are significant issues with how they manage speech and what they allow. I’m not sure that Google is a social media company, though. Google is a data collection and advertising platform. The one bit of the company that might be a platform for speech (Google+) was shut down a while ago. Requiring Google to carry your ads is like insisting that the local newspaper publish your letter to the editor.

I don’t see this going very far. I’ve watched Google’s lawyers in action against someone expecting Google to change their filtering. I expect we’ll see a motion to dismiss on the basis of no valid claim. Google isn’t a public forum, nor a state actor; the internet is not public property. The judge may give the campaign an opportunity to rewrite the complaint, but unless they get better lawyers it’s going no where.

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Blogging as thinking

Blogging has been a major part of our outreach and education here at WttW. It’s also the place where I work through some of my ideas. Most of what I do, particularly these days, is education. That means I need to be able to clearly model things in my head and explain that model to other folks.

I work out a lot of the models and language here on the blog. Many times I think best through my fingertips and so blogging gives me ‘thinking time.’

Recently, though, it’s been hard to blog about email. Whether or not something gets to the inbox seems inconsequential when I look in horror as the US descends into fascism. While I try and keep the blog apolitical, the reality is that the political situation since the 2016 US election has been personally very stressful. Moving out of the US resolved some areas of stress but I’m definitely still adjusting to living in a foreign country.

I fully intend to get back to blogging. I do have a lot of ideas and things to think about and work out here. But after 2600+ blog posts in 12 years combined with the challenges of moving countries I think I need a little break.


Google Postmaster is Back

Late last night folks started mentioning they were seeing data trickled into Google Postmaster tools. This morning, some of the domains for some of my clients are showing data.

A picture of google postmaster tools IP reputation showing data for some days between June 13 and June 27.

Things aren’t fully back to normal, some of my clients are still showing no data for the last week. But things are getting back to normal and it looks like we will have older data.

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More Google issues

Not necessarily more but more information about the current Google Postmaster Tools (GPT) outage. I’ve been reliably informed by folks inside Google that they’re aware of the outage and are working on it.

I’ve been reliably informed by other folks in the industry that they have been told that there is an announcement coming about Google Postmaster Tools.

That’s not a great amount of information, but it’s what we have. As of this morning I checked the few dozen domains my clients use and none of them have data. I have seen other people mention that they are starting to see trickles of data over the last 24 hours.

There has been rampant speculation that this is the launch of an API, but no one who knows is talking. The folks who are talking are saying they don’t think this is an API. But we can always hope.

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I took a class

… but it’s not what you might think.

A few months ago we bought a Victorian terrace built right around the turn of the 20th century. Our first inclination was to zip it up in as much insulation as we could to bring a 19th century house up to 21st century standards. Then we took a class.

Picture of a red brick victorian from somewhere in Dublin, Ireland

Photo credit: Pekka Nikrus

The class was on how to live in and maintain your period home in Dublin offered by the Irish Georgian Society. It was actually a series of lectures by different experts over the course of 12 weeks about different pieces of our new home. One week the lecture was on energy conservation and insulation, another was windows, another was roofs. It was a course in the special aspects of living in a home built 120 years ago.

In addition to learning about what we can and shouldn’t do with the house, it gave me an deep appreciation of the building history and architecture surrounding us here in Dublin. As I walk through the city now I catch myself observing details on the homes. How the wrought iron fences were built with woodworking techniques, or how this brick was laid in the dutch style. I can identify old glass and different sash styles.

One day a friend from the states was visiting and while walking through the city I mentioned something about a fence style. The class gave me enough information and confidence that I could share the knowledge with her. Now, I know that a few hours of lectures doesn’t make me an expert in Dublin architecture. But the classes, given by a wide range of experts in local history and architecture, gave me enough information I can share some of the basics with others.

What’s this got to do with email?

This parallels what I see a lot of folks experience with email. They come in and think they’re going to start an email marketing program and they can create something better than anyone else does. Then they discover there are all these little details and challenges and reasons that what they want to do won’t work. Then they start doing research and looking at things and learn the basics and are confident enough to share their new knowledge with others.

As a deliverability educator, I’m always happy when I talk to people who’ve read part of my blog or seen one of my talks and feel like they know what they’re doing. I consider it part of my job to explain complicated things in a way that makes people feel like they’re experts.

On the surface, deliverability is pretty easy. All you need to do is get the technical bits right, acquire permission from the recipient and send mail they want. The technical pieces are pretty straight forward and easy to learn. That doesn’t mean there aren’t grotty corners, there’s always grotty corners. But as I can’t tell the difference between 17 and 18th century glass, there are subtleties to deliverability that aren’t covered in standard advice.

It’s my goal to make email deliverability accessible and understandable to folks who just want to use email as a way to communicate with customers. The better I do my job the easier it all seems.

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New laptop, old reminder

I have a new laptop.

New OS (maybe this year will be the year of Linux on the Desktop?1Yes, the hardware problems did show up as crashes in Xorg). New hardware problems. New applications. New keyboard layout.

New mail client2With entirely new client-side bayesian filtering. *gulp*.

It reminded me of another reason why you want to keep the email address in your From: consistent – it’s something some users will use to automatically load images, which is something you probably want3It also probably skews your open rates when measured across the axes of list and recipient MUA.

Allow remote content from
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Google problems

It’s been a bit of a problematic week for Google. In the last few days they’ve had a number of outages or problems across different services. There was a major outage of Google Calendar. All email, including some spam, was delivering to the primary tab instead of the correct tab. Additionally, Google postmaster tools hasn’t been updated in over a week.

Google apparently blamed the calendar outage on some congestion with their cloud platform. There’s been no comment on the filtering issue and the person who generally responds to mail issues hasn’t been as responsive as usual.

These outages could be completely unrelated, of course. But generally Google is a pretty solid platform so it seems suspicious that multiple services break around the same time. Whatever it is, it’s nothing you’re doing, it’s a problem on Google’s end.


Barracuda update

The Barracuda twitter account has been very helpful and responsive to the issue. A few hours ago they tweeted that the problem should have been fixed.

Reports are that listings are resolving and things are getting back to normal. Folks are getting responses to emails to the address provided by Barracuda.

250OK confirms that they’ve seen more than 50% of the Barracuda listings drop off:

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Increase in Barracuda IP blocks

A number of folks are talking about a significant uptick in Barracuda IP blocks over the last few days. These blocks appear to be affecting wide ranges of IPs across multiple networks.

Folks have been reaching out to Barracuda through their unblocking form. Many of them are not receiving answers, but some are getting answers that say they may be old listings, and there is no current data to support the listing.

This issue is ongoing, as I was writing this post another ESP posted that they were seeing widespread listings affecting multiple customers. As of 1500 UTC folks are still seeing listings populate.

I did reach out on Twitter and their CS folks are passing the reports on to the correct people inside the company. Updates as I get them.

Update (1900 UTC): Barracuda support is actively responding to issues on Twitter. If anyone is actually a Barracuda customer, they’d like a case filed with support about this. Posters on mailop say Barracuda is aware of the issue and are trying to fix.

June 19: The blocks should be resolving now. More information on the update blog post.

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Raising the standard

Last week news broke that Mailchimp had disconnected a number of anti-vaccination activists from their platform and banned anti-vax content. I applaud their decision and hope other companies will follow their lead in banning harmful content from their network.

Measuring stick with an arrow and the words "you must be this tall to ride the ride."

These kinds of decisions, where providers say you can’t do that on our network, are because these are private platforms. As I talked about recently, they own the platform, they make the rules.

The same ownership that gives ESPs the right to ban content, also gives them the ability to enforce deliverability standards. These are the rules they enforce on customers to ensure a reasonable reputation. What kind of rules will a good ESP implement and enforce?

  1. Identify yourself and your company with accurate information. Be upfront and transparent about who you are and what you mail at the point of address collection.
  2. Collect permission directly. Do not outsource your permission to a third party. This means no co-reg, no renting lists, no purchasing lists.
  3. Respect your recipients. Do send email at the right cadence for your particular audience. Remove unengaged users who do not interact with your mail for an extended period of time.
  4. Respect the recipient domain rules. Set appropriate limits on the number of connections and sending speed. Handle bounces correctly. Don’t keep connections open for longer than necessary. Don’t allow customers to send spam.

How ESPs enforce these rules depends on the ESP. Some are more proactive than others. Any decent ESP is going to have a deliverability and/or compliance team that monitors for complaints and blocks and other obvious signs of deliverability problems. But the monitoring doesn’t stop there. There are a number of tools that have recently entered the market that allow ESPs to measure the quality of their customers’ data.

ESPs also monitor things like opens and clicks and engagement statistics. Customers who fall below standard thresholds are asked to improve their lists. For some senders this seems invasive and problematic. But responsible and legitimate senders know that removing unresponsive addresses benefits them. Even if they lose a few might-eventually-respond-someday addresses, there is significant long term benefit to maintaining an engaged list.

Enforcing good practices and data hygiene is expensive and can cause some hard feelings among customers. Companies who don’t enforce minimum standards can often find themselves in a downward spiral headed towards failure. I’ve worked with some of the ESPs in the past, and it’s never a good position.

ESPs that do enforce standards and good deliverability practices have customers that reach the inbox more effectively. Their raising of the standards bar often means smaller lists. But those smaller lists have a bigger reach and are more profitable for their owners.

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