Apple and Elon Musk’s Twitter are on a collision course

SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk attends a joint press conference with T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert (not pictured) at the SpaceX Starbase in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., August 25, 2022.

Address Latif | Reuters

Elon Musk has announced big, if confusing, plans for Twitter since taking over the social network last month.

Musk wants to massively increase the company’s revenue through subscriptions while also opening up the site to greater “freedom of speech,” which in some cases appears to mean reinstating previously banned accounts, such as those of former President Donald Trump.

But Musk’s plans for Twitter could put it in conflict with two of the biggest tech companies: Apple and Google.

Tensions are rising

Phil Schiller, senior vice president of global marketing at Apple Inc., speaks at an Apple event at the Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park on September 12, 2018 in Cupertino, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

There are signs that Twitter has already seen an increase in malicious content since Musk took over, putting the company’s apps at risk. In October, shortly after Musk became “chief of Twit,” a wave of online trolls and bigots flooded the site with hate speech and racial slurs.

The trolls organized on 4chan and then stormed into Twitter with anti-black and Jewish swear words. According to the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute, Twitter has suspended many of the accounts.

Musk’s plan to offer paid blue verification badges has also led to chaos and accounts impersonating big business and figures, leading some advertisers to shy away from the social network, most notably Eli Lilly after a fake verified tweet was posted to falsely said that insulin would be provided free of charge.

The app stores took notice.

“And when I left the company, the calls from the app review teams had already started,” former Twitter head of trust and security Yoel Roth wrote in the New York Times this month.

Costs and subscription income

Twitter and Apple have been partners for years. In 2011, Apple deeply integrated tweets its iOS operating system. Tweets that function as official company communications are regularly posted under Apple CEO Tim Cook’s account. Apple has been promoting new iPhones and the major launch events on Twitter.

But the relationship seems about to change as Musk moves to generate a larger share of subscription revenue.

Twitter reported revenue of $5.08 billion in 2021. If half of that comes from subscriptions in the future, as Musk has said, hundreds of millions of dollars would end up going to Apple and Google — a small sum for them, but a potentially huge hit for Twitter.

One of Apple’s main rules is that digital content — game coins, or an avatar outfit, or a premium subscription — purchased in an iPhone app must use Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism, where Apple charges the user directly. invoices. Apple takes 30% of sales, which drops to 15% after a year for subscriptions, and pays the rest to the developer.

Companies like Epic Games, Spotifyand Match Group lobby against Apple and Google rules as part of the Coalition for App Fairness. Microsoft and meta also filed pleadings in court criticizing the system and making public comments targeting app stores.

One option for Musk is to take an approach similar to what Spotify has done: offer a lower price of $9.99 on the web, where Apple doesn’t discount, and then users simply log into their existing account in the app. Users who subscribe to a Premium plan in the iPhone app pay $12.99, which basically covers Apple’s costs.

Or Twitter could go further, like Netflix, which stopped offering subscriptions through Apple altogether in 2018.

Musk could sell Twitter Blue on the company’s website at a lower price and tweet to his more than 118 million followers that Blue is only available on Twitter.com. It could work and could help Apple cut costs.

But that also means Twitter would have to remove many options for informing users about the subscription in the app, where they’re likely to make a purchase decision. And Apple has detailed rules about what apps can link to when informing users of alternative ways to pay.

As Netflix’s app says, “You can’t sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it’s a hassle.”

A power struggle over content moderation

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc., speaks at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S., on Monday, June 4, 2018.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Musk faces the power of Apple and Google and their ability to refuse to approve or even withdraw apps that violate their rules about content moderation and harmful content.

It’s happened before. Apple said in a letter to Congress last year that it removed more than 30,000 apps from its store in 2020 due to offensive content.

If Twitter is hit by app store-related issues, it could be “catastrophic,” said former Twitter head of trust and security Roth. Twitter cites app reviews as a risk factor in filings with the SEC, he noted.

Apple and Google may remove apps for a variety of reasons, including issues with an app’s security and compliance with the platform’s billing rules. And app reviews can delay release schedules and cause chaos when Musk looks to launch new features.

In recent years, the app stores have begun to scrutinize user-generated content that begins to devolve into violent speech or social networks that lack content moderation.

There is a precedent for a complete ban. Apple and Google banned Parler, a much smaller and conservative-minded site, in 2020 after posts on the site promoted the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and included calls for violence. In Apple’s case, the decision to ban high-profile apps is made by a group called the Executive Review Board, which is headed by Schiller – the Apple executive who deleted his Twitter account over the weekend.

Although Apple approved Truth Social, Trump’s social networking app, in February, Google Play took longer to approve it. The company told CNBC in August that the social network lacked “effective systems for moderating user-generated content” and was therefore in violation of the Google Play Store terms of service. Google finally approved the app in October, saying apps should “remove offensive messages, such as those that incite violence.”

Musk reportedly fired many of Twitter’s contact content moderators this month.

Apple and Google have been careful when banning apps like Parler, pointing to specific guidelines violations, such as screenshots of the offending posts, rather than citing broad political reasons or pressure from lawmakers. On a social network as big as Twitter, it’s often possible to find content that hasn’t been flagged yet.

Still, Apple and Google are unlikely to want to engage in an uphill battle over what constitutes harmful information and what does not. That could lead to public scrutiny and political debate. It’s possible that app stores are simply delaying approving new versions rather than threatening to remove apps completely.

Future features may also annoy Apple and Google and lead to a closer look at the platform’s current activities.

Musk has reportedly talked about allowing users to pay for user-generated videos — something former employees believe would lead to using the adult content feature, according to the Washington Post.

Apple’s App Store has never allowed pornography, a policy dating back to the company’s founder Steve Jobs, and Google also bans apps that target sexual content.

Anything not safe for work should be hidden by default. Twitter currently allows adult content, which could put it even more directly in the crosshairs of reviewers.

“Apps with user-generated content or services that ultimately serve primarily pornographic content… have no place in the App Store and may be removed without notice,” Apple’s guidelines read.

But Musk often runs towards battles, not away from them. Now he must decide whether it’s worth going up against two of Silicon Valley’s most valuable and powerful companies, over 30% cost, and Twitter’s ability to host sharp tweets.

An Apple representative did not respond to a request for comment. A Google representative declined to comment. Twitter did not respond to an email and the company no longer has a communications department. Musk did not respond to a tweet.

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