When the Obama administration decided to reverse a ban on certain older models of iPhone and iPads (s aapl) on Saturday, it did something the White House hasn’t done in more than two decades: step in and block a decision made by the International Trade Commission.
The decision signed by the U.S. Trade Representative cited “substantial concerns” over “the potential harm that can result in owners of standards-essential patents…gaining undue leverage and engaging in a ‘patent holdup.'” There are a lot of questions this brings up about other disputes over patents that the ITC decides. In this case, the administration’s decision favors an American company over a foreign maker of competing smartphones and tablets.
Apple’s lobbying efforts have always been extremely low key. But attention from Washington has been intensifying of late: Apple(s AAPL) has taken heat from the Senate on how it pays taxes and from the DOJ on how it prices its ebooks.
The political class and its press have been up in arms about Apple’s minimal commitment to playing the lobbying game; in 2012 it spent $2 million, compared to Microsoft’s $8 million and Google’s $18 million. It has no political action committee and did not contribute to federal election campaigns in 2011-2012.
This causes quotes like this from a Washington crisis consultant, from last week, to be printed:
“They show a lack of respect for what happens in Washington. Being there expresses respect for the process and, as a matter of fact, for the country. If you consciously avoid it, it’s a suicide strategy. Many companies try this, and they have to come back and repair the damage.”
The cringeworthy Senate hearing Apple got dragged into earlier this year, as well as the Justice Department’s pursuit of the ebooks price-fixing case, are cited as evidence by Washington types as to what happens when Apple acts as though “it’s above” playing the Washington power game.
And then Saturday happened.
Apple may not have been pumping large amounts of money into Washington, but it’s apparently finding influence in other ways. Right before the ban was overturned, four different senators, from several states and from both sides of the aisle, pressed the White House to nix the coming ban. Apple is playing the game when it needs to.
What will be interesting is to see now is if Apple decides it needs to keep and try to make more allies in the higher echelons of power in our nation’s capital.