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Apple flexes muscles as silent force behind app developer group

The App Association calls itself the leading voice for thousands of app developers around the world. In reality, the vast majority of funding comes from Apple Inc.

The App Association calls itself the leading voice for thousands of app developers around the world. In reality, the vast majority of funding comes from Apple Inc.

The tech giant is not a member of the association. But it plays a dominant behind-the-scenes role in shaping the group’s policy positions, according to four former App Association employees who asked not to be named when discussing internal affairs.

Critics note that the association’s lobbying agenda is closely aligned with Apple’s — even if at odds with app developers, the companies that make the individual games and applications that run on Apple’s iPhone and other devices.

The group, known as ACT, says it is not obligated to Apple, but confirmed it gets more than half of its funding from the company. According to the former employees, the actual percentage is much higher.

The relationship between Apple and ACT illustrates how big companies are quietly pouring money into outside groups promoting their agenda in Washington. ACT representatives regularly testify in Congress, file lawsuits in defense of Apple’s positions, and organize annual developer “fly-in” meetings with lawmakers.

Rick VanMeter, a former congressman who heads the rival developer group Coalition for App Fairness, said ACT’s alleged representation of app developers is deceptive given its relationship with Apple. “If you pretend to be something you’re not to make a point, it’s bad for the legislative process,” said VanMeter.

Cupertino, California-based Apple declined to comment on this story, but ACT executives defended the company’s role. ACT president Morgan Reed said in an interview that it “passes the laughter test” to say that the association is the front man for Apple.

“Our job is to make sure we pay attention to how government can, inadvertently or otherwise, impact all those small businesses that make cool software products,” Reed said.

Reed and other ACT executives said they make policy positions based on their members’ preferences and do not take directions from Apple, although they do take Apple’s views into account.

ACT spokesman Karen Groppe declined to say how much of the group’s funding will come from Apple, except it’s more than half. Contributions from all donors exceeded $9 million in 2020, according to the most recently available disclosure filing data, suggesting Apple is contributing multi-million dollars.

Apple is a major force in the industry. The App Store is a virtual marketplace for apps, a lucrative business for both developers and Apple. The company takes a 15% to 30% drop in revenue, which equates to billions of dollars a year.

But many app developers object to the fees and restrictions Apple says Apple needs to monitor its systems to ensure the security of its users.

Proposed antitrust legislation proposed by Congress would loosen Apple’s grip on the App Store and allow developers to circumvent the company’s austerity measures. The measure, known as the Open App Markets Act, is supported by the Coalition for App Fairness.

But ACT opposes the bill, arguing it would threaten the privacy and security of the App Store, echoing Apple’s points of discussion against the bill.

ACT’s executive director, Chelsea Thomas, is a former lobbyist on Apple’s government affairs team.

“Understanding what bigger players in the ecosystem think about policy issues is important for us to understand where the conversations are headed,” Thomas said.

ACT’s work has also received criticism from some of the biggest players in the developer world. Tim Sweeney, chief executive officer of Epic Games Inc., called the association “Apple’s fake lobby for ‘small app developers'” in a tweet in June.

Epic Games, a member of VanMeter’s Coalition for App Fairness, lost an antitrust suit against Apple last year involving the App Store, but won on a number of claims for unfair competition.

Both sides are attractive. ACT supported Apple in the case.

ACT’s website says it represents 5,000 developers and device companies around the world, although Reed said the number of active members is smaller. In addition to Apple, Verisign Inc., AT&T Inc., Intel Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. other corporate sponsors listed on its website.

The annual congress fly-ins include policy presentations to developers by Apple representatives and tech industry experts. People who attended said ACT often shared topics of conversation that reflected Apple’s agenda before meeting with lawmakers and staff.

Several ACT members said they appreciate the sessions with lawmakers organized by ACT, even if they do not always agree on the group’s views.

“Is it unreasonable for there to be a major donor whose position also aligns and supports all the small contributors in this space?” said Thomas Gorczynski, an ACT member and founder of software development firm DevScale.

But VanMeter, whose coalition also includes Apple antagonist Spotify Technology SA, said he assumed ACT was “the unified voice of app developers” when he received material from them during his time in Congress.

“They have caused a lot of confusion,” says VanMeter.

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