The App Association sees itself as the leading voice for thousands of app developers around the world. In reality, the majority of the funding comes from Apple Inc.
The tech giant is not a member of the association. But it plays a dominant role behind the scenes, shaping the group’s political positions, according to four former App Association employees, who asked not to be named to discuss internal matters.
Critics note that the association’s lobbying agenda closely aligns with Apple’s — even if it’s at odds with app developers, the companies that make the individual games and programs that run on Apple’s iPhone and other devices.
The group, known as ACT, says it’s not committed to Apple but confirmed it gets more than half its funding from the company. The former employees say the actual percentage is much higher.
The relationship between Apple and ACT shows how big companies are quietly pouring money into outside groups that promote their agenda in Washington. ACT officials regularly testify in Congress, file lawsuits to defend Apple’s positions, and hold annual “fly-in” meetings for developers with lawmakers.
Rick VanMeter, a former congressional aide and leader of rival developer group Coalition for App Fairness, said ACT’s alleged portrayal of app developers is fallacious given its relationship with Apple. “If you pretend to be something you’re not in order to emphasize something, it’s bad for the legislative process,” VanMeter said.
Cupertino, California-based Apple declined to comment on the story, but ACT executives defended the company’s role. ACT President Morgan Reed said in an interview that saying the association stands for Apple “fails the laugh test.”
“Our job is to make sure we’re aware of how government can unintentionally or otherwise affect all these small businesses that make cool software products,” Reed said.
Reed and other ACT executives said they determine policy positions based on their members’ preferences and do not align themselves with Apple, although they consider Apple’s positions.
ACT spokeswoman Karen Groppe declined to say how much of the group’s funding comes from Apple, other than saying it’s more than half. Contributions from all donors exceeded $9 million in 2020, according to the latest available data from disclosure documents, suggesting Apple is making a multimillion-dollar contribution.
Apple is a major force in the industry. Its App Store is a virtual marketplace for apps, a lucrative business for both the developers and Apple. The company is taking a 15% to 30% cut in sales of paid apps and subscriptions — equivalent to billions of dollars a year.
However, many app developers dismiss the fees and restrictions that Apple insists they must audit systems to keep their users safe.
Proposed antitrust laws moving forward in Congress would loosen Apple’s control over the App Store and allow developers to bypass the company’s cut. Known as the Open App Markets Act, the measure is supported by the Coalition for App Fairness.
But ACT opposes the bill, arguing that it would threaten the privacy and security of the App Store, echoing Apple’s arguments against the bill.
ACT CEO Chelsea Thomas is a former lobbyist on Apple’s government team.
“Understanding what larger players in the ecosystem think about political issues is important for us to understand where the conversations are going,” Thomas said.
ACT’s work has also been scrutinized by some of the biggest players in the developer world. Tim Sweeney, chief executive officer of Epic Games Inc., called the association “Apple’s bogus ‘small app developer’ lobby” in a June tweet.
Epic Games, a member of the VanMeter Coalition for App Fairness, lost an antitrust case against Apple involving the App Store last year, but won on an unfair competition lawsuit and some counterclaims.
Both sides are appealing. ACT supported Apple in the case.
ACT’s website says it represents 5,000 developers and device makers around the world, although Reed said the number of active members is fewer. In addition to Apple, other corporate sponsors listed on the website include Verisign Inc., AT&T Inc., Intel Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc.
The group’s annual convention fly-ins include keynote presentations by Apple representatives and technology industry experts to developers. People who attended them said that ACT often exchanged talking points that reflected Apple’s agenda before meeting with lawmakers and employees.
Several ACT members said they value the meetings with lawmakers that ACT organizes, even if they don’t always align with the group’s positions.
“Is it unreasonable that there is one big donor whose position also aligns and supports all the small contributors in this space?” said Thomas Gorczynski, ACT member and founder of software development agency DevScale.
But VanMeter, whose coalition members include Apple antagonist Spotify Technology SA, said he assumed ACT was “the unified voice of app developers” when he received materials from them during his time in Congress.
“You’ve caused a lot of confusion,” VanMeter said.
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