Saturday, June 25, 2022

ACT | The App(le) Association claims to represent thousands of small developers, but in Twitter debates they are supported only by employees, service providers, other pro-Apple lobbyists

From time to time it's unfortunately necessary to expose astroturfers. As someone who has published apps, and has a new one (a productivity app) in the works, the kind of astroturfing that offends me more than any other is when lobbyists for Apple and/or Google claim to defend our interests.

I'm sure many Ukrainians would be offended if a bunch of lobbyists funded by Russia were running around in D.C. and Brussels, claiming to be representing the Ukrainian population at large while arguing that Ukraine drew first blood and has no right to exist other than as a Russian oblast or in the form of a few "autonomous" regions with close ties to Russia, and saying that Ukrainian citizens want the West to let Russia get its way because it will be better for ordinary citizens. The outrageous part about that would not (only) be the messaging, but the false representation of masquerading as representatives of victims.

Masquerading as representatives of victims is at the heart of the kind of astroturfing we see happening in connection with initiatives to open up app markets. The story is that whether it's Apple's (or Google's) app tax or heavy-handedness, it's all in the best interest of the little guys.

A significantly less appalling--but equally untrustworthy--ploy is to lobby for the devaluation of standard-essential patents (SEPs) based on false claims that small app developers struggle to deal with SEP licensing or litigation. That's like saying that low-income workers have a problem with regulation relating to private jets: they're not affected, so the claim makes no sense, but at least they aren't victims of those funding the campaign. They're being used, but not against their own interests--just for someone else's interests of a kind that doesn't matter to them.

A few months ago I had a conversation with a policy officer of one of the other large corporations supporting ACT. By now it seems it really is mostly Apple who's footing the bill and setting the agenda, but they're not alone (yet). When ACT came up, I criticized that company for supporting an organization that claims to speak on small app developers' behalf while actually working against them (and for Apple). The excuse was this: "But in the SEP policy debate we are faced with all those professors who are funded by Qualcomm." Qualcomm does fund a lot of academic research--very transparently so. What has not been shown is that it leads professors to agree with Qualcomm: they may harbor those views anyway, and Qualcomm just enables them to do more work on the subject of SEPs. But the fundamental difference is that those professors speak for themselves as researchers, as do others who agree with Apple and its SEP devaluation friends. Those professors don't claim to have a mandate from other stakeholders, much less from the victims of a digital tyranny.

This week there's been some Twitter debate between ACT | The App Association--more appropriately called ACT | The Apple Association--and Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, who picked up an ACT tweet attacking the Epic-founded Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) based on a quote from an Epic Games v. Apple court document:

Is the pot calling the kettle black and vice versa? Not really. ACT has no more legitimacy for the claim to speak on small developers' behalf than Apple itself would have. The CAF, however, does represent actual app developers, all of whom are listed on the organization's website and--as far as I know--every single one of whom pays membership dues, which is more than ACT can say. It's true that some Epic-internal documents surfaced in the Epic Games v. Apple dispute that I never liked. For instance, the plan was for the CAF to raise App Store issues whether real or "manufactured." However, the CAF has now been around for about two years, and even though I'm reading their messages on Twitter, LinkedIn, and their website, I haven't spotted a single "manufactured" issue.

There's a host of real (and serious) issues surrounding app store governance--no need to make up any additional ones. That's why I would attribute the questionable passages of those 2020 documents to a lack of experience coupled with an excess of zeal. Whatever the intentions behind the creation of the CAF may have been, let's judge the entity by its track record of now approximately two years. As long as the CAF continues to truly advocate the interests of developers of all sizes, and raises actual (rather than manufactured) issues, it doesn't matter what someone at Epic may have written two years ago--and falls far short of what would create a situation of the pot calling the kettle black.

Mr. Sweeney effortlessly ratioed (click for an explanation of the term)--sometimes also spelled "ratio'd"--ACT. His tweet got a couple hundred likes vs. ACT's (by the time I write this line) 35 likes, a high percentage of which came from ACT employees and other pro-Apple lobbyists.

One of the 35 likes of ACT's tweet and an immediate response to Mr. Sweeney came from an account named "Chris Sims is Agile" (@chris_is_agile):

"Bless your poor little billionaire heart. You’re supporting legislation and policies that are fundamentally toxic to the safety of the American free market. I’ve been connected with @actonline for sometime [sic] and they have done far more to make a better world than you!"

Mr. Sweeney's billionaire status is unrelated to the merits of his positions on mobile app distribution as long as the positions he takes benefit developers of all sizes, which has been the case so far. It's a transparent distraction from the real issues, and consistent with what ACT's president Morgan Reed told Mr. Sweeney:

It's just absurd to argue that legislation like the EU's Digital Markets Act (which is soon going to be adopted) or the Open App Markets Act, for which there is ever more support among Capitol Hill lawmakers, makes Epic richer at the expense of small developers. No developer can have an interest in being taxed by the world's richest corporation, or in apps being rejected by Apple for reasons other than being malware or out of compliance with applicable local laws.

So, @chris_is_agile basically echoes ACT's "argument" in different words. Mr. Sweeney, for good reason, mocked @chris_is_agile as follows:

A fact check shows Mr. Sweeney is right and @chris_is_agile doesn't make ACT's claim to represent small app developers any more credible. If ACT really did represent approximately 5,000 small app developers, we'd see true developers (who've actually published apps) supporting ACT and its leadership.

"Chris Is Agile" has a website, which links to other pages. His YouTube channel has--lo and behold--32 subscribers (as we speak). The "Upcoming Classes" link appears broken (404 error; I tried more than once). SIGAO Studios is a service provider ("Our team specializes in breaking down business problems, identifying high value targets, and creating technology solutions that meet the needs of our customers"). And Mr. Sweeney is right about the content of Mr. Sims's Twitter feed. I just checked on the Tweets & Replies page of his profile, and at this point (approximately 8:30 AM EDT on June 25), the most recent 50+ tweets are related to the debate with Mr. Sweeney that I just mentioned; then a couple of retweets of ACT's Morgan Reed's statements on app distribution; and so it goes. Then, finally, I could find a few tweets (including retweets) related to Scrum training (Scrum is a means of managing software development projects in an "agile" fashion), followed by--again--various tweets over the course of the previous month relating to ACT's work, mostly its opposition to the American Innovation and Choice Online Act.

It's interesting to see that those standing up for ACT are typically service providers, not actually organizations publishing their own apps. Even in the SEP context, the app developer ACT's Save Our Standards campaign presented was just a contract developer for others. And now there's this @chris_is_agile account, which apparently belongs to someone who works as a consultant and trainer in the Scrum context.

I'm not going to believe ACT that they truly represent small app developers (or IoT companies, which they claim in connection with SEP licensing) until they start taking positions against Apple on at least some important issues where doing so is in the interest of developers. There is no indication whatsoever of those "members" paying any membership dues--they may just have filled out a web form to subscribe to a newsletter, which is the closest thing to a membership application process.

Only recently have I found such a thing as a membership directory on ACT's website--but there's no reason to believe ACT's claim that they represent 5,000 small app developers. All one can find right now on the "Members" page of ACT's website is 38 company logos, and a number of them describe themselves as service providers:

Accedia ("Services: Consulting, Applications, Operations, Outsourcing"); innovify ("we build your #Web3 products for your business"); synesthesia (they create marketing campaigns); appsgarden ("software development ... We will make your ideas work!"); Concentric Sky ("product design and realization", "we excel in building end-to-end solutions"); SheerID ("collect customer data you can trust and create bold campaigns with SheerID's Identity Marketing platform"; Dogtown Media (app development for hire); Project Hosts ("providing Cloud Compliance-as-a-Service on Microsoft Azure for the US Federal government, healthcare organizations, and ISVs"); Colorado Technology Consultants, Inc; MotionMobs (yes, the contract developer who incredibly claimed to have a SEP licensing problem); SouthernDNA ("Atlanta-based digital agency"); devscale ("we build your software"); BadVR (immersive analytics platform); CannedSpinach ("we supercharge businesses to tackle their problems using strategy, technology, & design"); SentryOne ("provider of database performance monitoring and DataOps solutions"); 1564B (Marketing, Content development Speaking & Writing); bridge the gaps (digital education); TelemetryDeck ("a service that helps app and web developers improve their product by supplying immediate, accurate analytics data"); Nebula Labs ("we deliver top quality digital solutions"); Layers ("Layers helps its clients design and develop their brands and products"); and LoopCycle ("we help commercial equipment manufacturers and operators trace, manage and recover physical assets").

ACT has no reasonable basis to claim to speak for a $143 billion ecosystem.

By contrast, the CAF's membership includes companies whose apps everyone knows, such as Epic (Fortnite), Spotify, Match (Tinder etc.), and Tile. And they don't claim to represent 5,000 others without listing them.

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