Apple Lags at Buying Friends as iPhone Fight Goes to Congress

Apple Ready for Showdown on Capitol Hill
  • World's largest tech company spends less than other giants
  • Google, Microsoft outpace Apple in lobbying, donations

Apple Inc. could use all the friends it can get in Congress as lawmakers prepare to confront its refusal to unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist.

But the company hasn’t invested as much time and money as competitors to buy influence -- at least in the traditional ways of Washington.

“I’ve never run into an Apple lobbyist, and I think that’s the way they like it,” said Chris Jones, managing partner of lobbyist recruiter CapitolWorks, who’s been in Washington for 25 years and knows hundreds of powerbrokers. “The in-house lobbyists from Apple tend to operate in -- to use a phone metaphor -- in silent or vibrate mode.”

Apple’s general counsel Bruce Sewell and FBI Director James Comey are scheduled to testify on Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee. The world’s largest tech company is fighting a court order demanding it help FBI investigators unlock the phone used by one of the attackers who killed 14 in San Bernardino, California, in December. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has called the demand a threat to civil liberties.

While Apple’s $4.48 million spent on lobbying in Washington last year was an all-time high for the iPhone maker, it’s not nearly on the scale of tech giants such as Google or Microsoft Corp. Google parent Alphabet Inc. spent $16.7 million in 2015 to rank among the top 12 lobbying spenders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit that tracks money in elections. Microsoft, which boosted its Washington presence after a bruising antitrust battle in the 1990s, spent $8.5 million in 2015, according to the center.

Step Up Game

There were 36 lobbyists registered to represent Apple in 2014, compared with 98 for Google, according to the center.

“They may need to rethink how much firepower they have, and how much they’re going to need,” said Jim Manley, senior director at QGA Public Affairs, a Washington-based lobbying firm. “Apple’s staking its reputation on this and they’re going to need to be very aggressive.”

Fred Sainz, an Apple spokesman, declined to comment.

House Judiciary Committee leaders, Representatives Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, and John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said in a joint statement they want to “effectively enforce the law without harming the competitiveness of U.S. encryption providers or the privacy protections of U.S. citizens.”

’Dangerous Precedent’

In testimony submitted in advance of the hearing, Apple’s Sewell said the FBI request would weaken the security of the company’s products. “Hackers and cyber criminals could use this to wreak havoc on our privacy and personal safety,” he said. “It would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. , who is also scheduled to appear Tuesday, submitted testimony on behalf of prosecutors. Vance stressed that law enforcement is crimped by Apple’s stance, and wants to be able to access information “pursuant to a neutral judge’s court order."

Apple brings strengths to the contest. The company and its products are widely admired: U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, gushed “I love Apple” during a 2013 hearing into Apple’s tax avoidance.

The company already has engaged top-drawer legal talent, hiring former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, a partner with the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Other Companies

Other tech companies show signs of rallying around, with Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. expected to file friendly briefs in the court California.

And privacy advocates say Cook, the chief executive, is an increasingly influential figure. Cook went on ABC news to say that helping the government unlock the iPhone would be “bad for America” because it could expose other users.

“When someone in such a powerful position as Tim Cook is advocating for privacy, it’s something that governments have to take seriously,” said Harmit Kambo, director of campaigns and development at advocacy group Privacy International. “He’s playing an extremely valuable role in this massively important debate.”

Judiciary Committee members are divided over Apple’s stance, reflecting a lack of consensus that has thwarted congressional efforts in recent years to strike a balance between privacy rights and law enforcement.

Fifty-one percent of Americans said Apple should unlock the iPhone, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. Some 38 percent said Apple shouldn’t do so.

Presidential Race

The furor has attracted attention in the presidential campaign, with Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz saying during a Feb. 25 debate Apple should comply with the FBI order. Front-runner Donald Trump has gone further, calling for a boycott of Apple’s products.

Apple also trails in organized campaign donations. The company doesn’t have a political action committee, or PAC, that gathers employee contributions and spends to support candidates. Google’s PAC spent $1.6 million in the last election cycle concluding in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Microsoft’s PAC spent $2.1 million.

Apple’s Cook has appeared before Congress once, in 2013, when he defended the company’s use of offshore tax shelters. His predecessor Steve Jobs never appeared before Congress. Cook told lawmakers Apple had “never had a large presence” in Washington.

With Apple’s battles with the government over encryption and others on the horizon, Jones said, “Apple will have to pick up its game, add more to its team.”

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