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Tech Companies Don’t Need PACs to Dominate Politics

How Apple and other companies strong-arm policy and why that matters

Credit: ifixit

Nathan Proctor is director of the Right to Repair Campaign for U.S. PIRG, an advocacy organization.

II work on Right to Repair, a campaign that aims to encourage companies such as Apple to provide customers with parts, service information, and repair software — so we can fix the gadgets we own.

When manufacturers don’t let anyone else have access to the parts, tools, software, and information needed to fix things, it creates a monopoly around certain repair procedures, driving up costs for customers. When it’s expensive to repair an electronic product, people are more likely to throw older devices away and buy new ones. The goal of Right to Repair is to pass state laws that break open these repair monopolies, and give people more repair options to reduce cost and waste.

From where I sit, Apple has an incredibly outsized role in American politics.

Unfortunately, Right to Repair is not a popular idea with manufacturers, including Apple, because it is much easier to make a profit for their shareholders by selling more new products than it is helping their customers repair or otherwise extend the useful life of their “old” products. I’m reminded of this every day as I do my work in the face of their fierce opposition.

From where I sit, Apple has an incredibly outsized role in American politics. But, recently, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook argued that they aren’t much involved.

We do not focus on politics,” Cook said on April 23 at the Time 100 event. “Apple doesn’t have a PAC… Apple is probably the only large company [without one].”

As reporters quickly pointed out, Cook was playing coy about Apple’s political clout. It might not have a political action committee that spends directly on elections, but it invested a whopping $6.68 million on federal lobbying in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s less than tech companies like Facebook and Google, but it still represents a major outlay — and Apple spends even more in state lobbying. Electronics manufacturers, as an industry, ranked third in federal lobbyist spending in 2018 at $146.6 million, after pharma and insurance.

All of that lobbying helps block common sense reforms like Right to Repair.

I was in Sacramento to support the Right to Repair effort there, and so were lobbyists representing Apple’s interests, including one who worked for Apple itself, as Motherboard reported. Apple’s lobbyist, who the Verge identified as Rod Diridon, Jr., was demonstrating all the ways that repairing an iPhone could harm the consumer or damage the device. Those presentations were designed to convince lawmakers to oppose Right to Repair.

As a result of that last-minute lobbying, the California Assembly pulled the bill from its committee hearing, putting our effort there on ice for the rest of the year. Vice’s Jason Koebler reported that “lobbyists said that if improperly disassembled, consumers who are trying to fix their own iPhone could hurt themselves by puncturing the lithium-ion battery.” While there are risks involved in repairing anything, including batteries, these are risks consumers seem to navigate fine on their own. Taking a peek at the iFixit guide for an iPhone 6 battery swap, for example, shows that more than 2 million people have viewed the guide, indicating that a lot of people do this repair without known incidents. People also replace car batteries, which I would argue are more dangerous than cellphone batteries.

Even if there are special risks from batteries, wouldn’t that risk be reduced by access to official repair documentation, which Right to Repair would require? It would seem that these safety arguments are simply meant to scare lawmakers.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Apple spends large sums lobbying. It reported to shareholders that increased battery replacements hurt iPhone sales last year. Apple’s job — like any other company — is to deliver value to those shareholders, even if doing so means increasing electronic waste and the overconsumption of our natural resources.

Companies tend to spend a lot more on lobbying than they spend on PACs. For example, Google has a PAC that spent $2.2 million in 2018, but Alphabet, Google’s parent company, budgets more than 10 times that for lobbying. Many companies lobby against Right to Repair as well. We looked at the lobbyist disclosure records in New York state last year, and found that companies worth a combined $2.5 trillion are registered to lobby on Right to Repair, including AT&T, Caterpillar, Medtronic, Verizon, and Apple. Moreover, that lobbying money can connect to campaign contributions indirectly.

That’s because lobbying access and political contributions are related. Some academics argue that “the opportunity to lobby is largely contingent on campaign donations.”

If a lobbyist gives the biggest donations to the greatest number of state candidates and provides revenue for the party in power, that can help ensure that legislators will take the lobbyist’s phone calls and meet with them in person. Sometimes those are direct contributions. Other times, lobbyists recruit people to donate to the candidate, often by hosting a fundraising event. All of this helps those lobbyists have “access.”

Because the Right to Repair campaign focuses on state legislation, I spend a lot of time lining up supporters in states across the country. When I show up in a state capital — say Albany in New York — with my scrappy band of tinkerers, repair shop owners, STEM teachers, and environmental advocates, every office we go into has already heard from Apple’s hired guns.

My role as a “citizen-powered” advocate, supported by U.S. PIRG’s small donor members, is to counter the power that special interest lobbyists exert on our political system.

Apple usually hires a top-dollar lobbying firm in each state. On top of those direct client-firm relationships, Apple and other manufacturers are also represented by trade associations, such as CompTIA and the Consumer Technology Association, which lobby for those same interests.

How does a lobbying firm become the most sought-after and expensive? Generally, the most expensive lobbying firms have the best access.

I’ve seen the flip side of this: Legislative leaders often won’t meet with us despite overwhelming public support. The coalition representing Right to Repair struggled to schedule meetings with lawmakers in Sacramento, but it seems, given the Vice and Verge reporting, Apple did not have the same difficulties.

While Apple might not have written checks to the politicians in Albany, Sacramento, or other state capitals, its lobbying has a big impact, and helps increase the role of money in politics through the donations from lobbyists.

Nor is it just Apple. Microsoft specifically targeted Right to Repair legislation in Washington state, and is generally credited for killing the bill.

My role as a “citizen-powered” advocate, supported by U.S. PIRG’s small donor members, is to counter the power that special interest lobbyists exert on our political system. We like to say there are two kinds of power: organized money and organized people. My job is to help organize, and speak up for, the people.

We know the money is already organized, and Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all political. And so are banks, the oil industry, cellphone carriers, appliance manufacturers and more.

If you don’t want Apple or anyone else deciding when you fix your phone, and what kind of energy powers your house, or any other issue that is important to you, you need to be political, too.

Here’s one way to start: Speak up for your Right to Repair.

Running campaigns to advance a more sustainable economy that works for people. #RightToRepair advocate

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