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

SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk participates in a joint press conference with T-Mobile CEO Mike Seifert (not pictured) at SpaceX Starbase, in Brownsville, Texas, US, August 25, 2022.

Idris Latif | Reuters

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

Musk wants to dramatically increase the revenue the company generates through subscriptions while opening up the site to more “freedom of speech,” which in some cases seems to mean restoring previously banned accounts like those owned by former President Donald Trump.

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

Tensions are running high

Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, Apple Inc. , speaks at an Apple event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Apple Park on September 12, 2018 in Cupertino, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

There are signs that Twitter has already seen an increase in harmful content since Musk took over, putting the company’s apps at risk. In October, shortly after Musk assumed the title of “Chairman of Twit,” a wave of trolls and online zealots flooded the site with hate speech and racist epithets.

The trolls organized on 4chan then stormed Twitter with anti-black and anti-Jewish epithets. Twitter has suspended several accounts, according to the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute.

Musk’s plan to introduce paid blue verification badges also created chaos and accounts impersonating big companies and numbers, causing some advertisers to distance themselves from the social network, in particular, Eli Lilly after a fake verified tweet wrongly said insulin would be provided for free.

App stores noticed.

“When I left the company, the calls from the app review teams had already begun,” Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, wrote this month in The New York Times.

Fees and subscription revenue

Twitter and Apple have been partners for years. In 2011, Apple deeply integrated tweets into its iOS. Tweets that serve as official company communications are regularly posted on Apple CEO Tim Cook’s account. Apple announced new iPhones and their big launch events on Twitter.

But the relationship appears set to change as Musk moves to generate more income from subscriptions.

Twitter reported revenue of $5.08 billion in 2021. If half of that comes from subscriptions in the future, as Musk has said is the goal, hundreds of millions of dollars will go to Apple and Google — a small sum for them, but potentially Be a massive hit for Twitter.

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

companies like Epic Games, SpotifyAnd the Match set Lobbying against Apple and Google rules as part of the Coalition for App Fairness. Microsoft And the meta They have also filed briefs in court criticizing the system and made public remarks aimed at app stores.

One of Musk’s options is to take a similar approach to what Spotify has done: offer a lower price of $9.99 on the web, pay Apple no amount, and then users simply sign into their existing accounts within the app. Users who sign up for a Premium subscription within the iPhone app pay $12.99, which effectively covers Apple’s fee.

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

Musk can sell Twitter Blue on the company’s website for cheaper, tweeting to his more than 118 million followers that Blue is only available on Twitter.com. It might work and it could help cut Apple off from any charges.

But it also means that Twitter will have to remove many of the options for telling users to subscribe within the app where they’re most likely to make the purchase decision. And Apple has detailed rules about which apps can be linked when telling users about alternative payment methods.

As the Netflix app says: “You can’t subscribe to Netflix in the app. We know that’s a problem.”

Power struggle over moderation in content

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

David Paul Morris | bloomberg | Getty Images

Musk faces the power and ability of Apple and Google to refuse approval or even pull apps that violate their rules on content moderation and harmful content.

It has happened before. apple He said in a letter to Congress last year that he removed more than 30,000 apps from his store due to objectionable content in 2020.

If problems with the App Store hit Twitter, it could be “catastrophic,” according to Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety. He noted that Twitter lists the app’s review as a risk factor in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Apple and Google can remove apps for various reasons, such as issues with the app’s security and whether it complies with the platform’s billing rules. And app reviews can delay release schedules and wreak havoc when Musk wants to launch new features.

In the past few years, app stores have begun to closely scrutinize user-generated content that begins to shadow violent speech or social networks that lack content moderation.

There is precedent for a complete ban. Apple and Google banned Parler, a much smaller and conservative-leaning site, in 2020 after posts on the site promoted the Jan. 6 U.S. 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, led 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 lacks “effective systems for moderating user-generated content,” and thus violates the Google Play Store terms of service. Google eventually approved the app in October, saying the apps needed to “remove objectionable posts like those that incite violence.”

Musk reportedly fired several Twitter contacts content moderators this month.

Apple and Google have been careful while blocking apps like Parler, citing specific guideline violations like screenshots of offensive posts, rather than citing broad political reasons or pressure from lawmakers. On a large social network such as Twitter, it is often possible to find content that has not yet been reported.

However, it is unlikely that Apple and Google would want to engage in a hard-fought battle over what constitutes harmful information and what does not. It could end up inviting public scrutiny and political debate. It is possible that app stores are simply delaying approval of new versions rather than threatening to remove apps entirely.

Future features may also irk Apple and Google and prompt a closer look at the platform’s current operations.

Musk has reportedly talked about letting users create paywalled user-generated videos — something the former employees believe will lead to the feature being used for adult content, according to The Washington Post.

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

Anything that is not safe to operate should be hidden by default. Twitter currently allows adult content, which could put it squarely in reviewers’ sights.

Apple’s guidelines state that “apps that contain user-generated content or services that primarily end up with pornographic content… do not belong in the App Store and may be removed without notice.”

But Musk often runs toward fights, not away from them. Now he has to decide whether it’s worth taking two of Silicon Valley’s most valuable and powerful companies over 30% royalties and Twitter’s ability to host sensational 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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