The late Steve Jobs spoke often about the importance of being at the intersection of technology and the humanities, but the company increasingly finds itself at a new intersection: technology and politics. Bloomberg reported the Cupertino company has dramatically stepped up its lobbying efforts in Washington, DC, lobbying some 13 different departments and agencies in 2014.
This marks a major departure from Apple under Steve Jobs. At that time, Apple paid relatively little attention to lobbying, especially compared to other companies of Apple's size. Then again, until recently, that was the case with much of Silicon Valley.
Meet the New Boss
The reality is that as the technology world has grown and evolved into mobile computing, wearables, fitness, and self-driving cars, the opportunities for technology to intersect with politics have increased exponentially. And in the last year, the desire of technology companies—at least Apple and Google—to provide their customers with data security in the form of true encryption has taken this intersection to a whole other level.
That's because the people charged with keeping us safe—the executive branch and law enforcement as a whole—don't want us to have true security when it comes to our data. When we, the people, have data security, the bad guys also have data security, and that makes law enforcement's job more difficult.
Right now a fight is brewing between politicians and technology companies. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to outlaw encrypted messaging services that don't give police a back door into those services. In the U.S., a steady escalation of rhetoric from the FBI and the Department of Justice has turned into a call from President Barack Obama for a U.S. back door.
This puts tech companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and a host of others in a tough spot. Consumers are worried about data breaches, ID theft, and other security issues. Apple and Google have met those concerns by integrating encryption in some of their products not even they can bypass. Apple had even advertised the following:
Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.
Google has made similar encryption the default in Android Lollipop. Both companies know that all backdoors can be exploited, and are dealing with that reality in the only way possible—true encryption.
At the same time, foreign governments have used worries about U.S. surveillance through U.S. technology products to harass U.S. companies. Some of that noise is politics, while some is justified. The end result, however, is that U.S. tech firms will increasingly find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in international markets. Even worse, foreign governments are being incentivised to sponsor their own technology firms, something that threatens U.S. hegemony in technology.
Plus, security and encryption is just one area of importance to Apple and other tech firms. Health and fitness has all sorts of regulatory implications. Customer tracking is an important issue. The U.S. tax code has all kinds of room for tech firms to lobby—Apple CEO Tim Cook told lawmakers to change the law if they didn't like Apple following that law. These are just some of the many areas where technology and politics intersect.
There Be Rapids
These are troubled waters to navigate. The U.S. Congress can pass laws that have a direct impact on the goings on at tech firms. Many industries have dealt with this to a greater or lesser degree, but computer companies have mostly seemed to get along with little legislative oversight.
That's changing, and as it changes, companies like Apple must become more involved in the political process. As corrupt as it can be, lobbying is part of that process.
Bloomberg reported that Apple spent some US$2.9 million in lobbying efforts in the first three quarters of 2014. That marks a big increase, even if it's pocket change for a company as wealthy as Apple. Google spent far more, ponying up some $13.7 million, while Microsoft spent $6 million.
This is just the start of how things will be. Silicon Valley giants are likely to take on the role of key players in Washington. For many people, this would not be counted as progress. That may or may not be, but with computing reaching deeper and deeper into our daily lives, it's necessary.
Image made with help from Shutterstock.