Tim Cook walks through the Paddock ahead of the United States F1 Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas on October 23, 2022 in Austin, Texas.
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Over the past week, Twitter owner Elon Musk has been pushing Apple, Silicon Valley’s big bear, which controls the distribution of apps on every iPhone.
Musk takes aim at the iPhone maker on a number of topics, including its reduction in ad spend on Twitter and its 30% reduction in all digital sales made through apps. He also accused Apple of threatening to pull the Twitter app from the App Store.
Apple remained a sleeping bear in the face of Musk’s provocations. He hasn’t commented, neither has CEO Tim Cook, and while his app review moderation staff members can talk to Twitter behind the scenes about questionable content, Apple hasn’t taken down the app. . In fact, Twitter received an update through the app review last week.
Twitter is not that important to Apple from a business perspective. It’s just one of many apps on the App Store, and it’s not a huge money saver for Apple from in-app purchases.
But on Tuesday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Ohio Senator-elect JD Vance, both Republicans, made remarks about Apple’s situation that show how Musk could put Apple in a tight spot.
Here is one way to do it:
- Musk is modifying Twitter to circumvent Apple’s 30% fee, such as allowing users to plug their credit cards into the app to subscribe to Twitter Blue or other new features.
- Apple is removing the app because of these violations.
- Musk describes the dispute with Apple as an issue of free speech and content moderation, and Republican politicians agree.
- Apple is caught in a national debate over free speech and monopoly power focused on its App Store.
How things might turn out
Tuesday, DeSantis told a press conference that if Apple were to launch Twitter, it would show that Apple has monopoly power and that Congress should look into the matter. DeSantis framed it as a free speech issue — many conservatives believe social media, including Twitter, generally discriminates against conservative viewpoints.
“You also hear reports that Apple is threatening to remove Twitter from the App Store because Elon Musk is actually opening it up to free speech and restoring many accounts that were wrongfully and illegitimately suspended for spreading accurate information about Covid,” DeSantis said.
“If Apple responds to this by removing them from the App Store, I think that would be a huge, huge mistake, and it would be a really crude exercise in monopoly power,” he continued.
Vance similarly described the situation in a Tweeter, saying that if Apple pulled Twitter, “It would be the most brutal exercise of monopoly power in a century, and no civilized country should allow it.”
In fact, Apple’s app review department is unlikely to pull Twitter on content. Although Apple regularly bans apps on questionable content, it’s rarely big brands like Twitter – they’re usually smaller, lesser-known apps. Apple’s rules for apps with significant user-generated content like Twitter focus on whether they have content filtering systems or content moderation procedures, and focus less on specific types infringing content. Twitter has both, though Musk’s recent cuts to Twitter’s staff could hurt its ability to flag problematic posts.
But Apple would be much more likely to pull the Twitter app if it tried to cut Apple from its platform fees.
It’s already arrived. In 2020, Fortnite added a system in its iPhone app that allowed users to purchase game coins directly from Epic Games, removing the 30% of sales that Apple typically takes. Apple removed Fortnite from the App Store the same day. (The episode kicked off a legal battle that Apple won on most counts, but is currently on appeal.)
Musk has good business reasons for picking this fight.
In particular, Musk wants Twitter to make a lot more money from direct subscriptions, not advertising. But Apple’s 30% reduction in in-app purchases is a major hurdle for a company that’s been cutting costs dramatically and has a lot of debt. (Google takes a similar cut for Android apps sold through its Play Store, but also allows other Android app stores to exist and lets people “sideload” apps directly onto their phones, while Apple has an exclusive lock on all iPhone application distribution. )
So Musk could pull a move from Epic Games and allow direct billing, prompting Apple to act, while framing the debate around free speech. If that happened, as DeSantis suggested, maybe Congress would start asking questions. Apple would become a football in political debates. Leaders could be compelled to testify or provide written responses.
At the very least, you’d have lawmakers like Vance using the words “monopoly” and “Apple.” in the same sentence. This is a risk for the Apple brand. Debate over these topics could reinvigorate pending regulation like the Open Markets Act that threatens its control over the App Store and its sizable profits.
The last time Apple removed an app popular with curators (for lack of content moderation) was Talk in January 2021. It was restored in April.
In the meantime, Apple has faced official inquiries from Republican Senators Ken Buck and Mike Lee as to why Talk was removed from the App Store. Cook appeared on Fox News to defend the company’s decision.
Twitter is a much larger and well-known social network than Parler and would attract more attention.
It’s probably more valuable to Apple if Twitter stays on the platform, and the controversy-averse iPhone maker would probably like that whole Elon Musk narrative to go away.
Indeed, it could play out this way: Apple stays quiet, working with Twitter behind the scenes on its app, and Musk tweets about the 30% cut when it irritates him. Nothing really changes.
But Musk is unpredictable, and if he really wants to “wage war” at more than 30% cost, Apple could be forced into a tight spot.
Apple and Twitter did not immediately return requests for comment.
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