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, on August 25, 2022.

Addresses Latif | Reuters

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

Musk wants to significantly increase the revenue the company generates from subscriptions while also opening up the site to more “freedom of speech,” which in some cases appears to mean previously suspended accounts like former President Donald Trump’s need to be reinstated.

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

Tensions are brewing

Phil Schiller, Apple Inc.’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, 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 since Musk’s acquisition, Twitter has already seen a surge in malicious content endangering the company’s apps. In October, shortly after Musk became “Chief Twit,” a wave of online trolls and zealots flooded the site with hate speech and racial slurs.

The trolls organized themselves on 4chan and then stormed Twitter with anti-Black and Jewish epithets. According to the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute, Twitter suspended many of the accounts.

Musk’s plan to offer paid blue verification badges has also resulted in chaos and accounts impersonating large corporations and personalities, causing some advertisers to shy away from the social network, most notably Eli Lilly, after a fake verified tweet was falsely reported said that insulin would be provided free of charge.

The app stores have caught the eye.

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

Fees and Subscription Revenue

Twitter and Apple have been partners for years. In 2011, Apple integrated tweets deep into its iOS operating system. Tweets that act as official company announcements are regularly posted to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s account. Apple has been promoting new iPhones and its big launch events on Twitter.

But the relationship appears poised to change as Musk seeks to generate a larger chunk of revenue from subscriptions.

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

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

companies like Epic Games, Spotifyduck playgroup Lobbying against Apple and Google rules as part of the Coalition for App Fairness. Microsoft Spirit Meta have also filed briefs in court criticizing the system and made public comments aimed at app stores.

One option for Musk is to take a similar approach to Spotify: offer a lower price of $9.99 on the web, where Apple doesn’t pay a discount, and then users just log into their existing account in the app. Users who subscribe to a premium subscription in the iPhone app pay $12.99, effectively covering Apple’s charges.

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 for a discounted price and tweet to his 118 million+ followers that Blue is only available on Twitter.com. It could work and help free Apple from fees.

But that also means Twitter would have to remove many options to inform users about the subscription within the app, where they’re most likely to make a purchase decision. And Apple has detailed rules about what apps can link to when telling users alternative payment options.

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

A power struggle over content moderation

Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook speaks during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on Monday June 4, 2018 in San Jose, California, United States.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Musk faces the power of Apple and Google and their ability to reject or even pull down apps that violate their content moderation rules and malicious content.

It’s happened before. Apple said in a letter to Congress last year that it removed over 30,000 apps from its store in 2020 for objectionable content.

If issues related to the App Store hit Twitter, it could be “catastrophic,” according to former Twitter head of trust and safety Roth. Twitter lists app review as a risk factor in filings with the SEC, he noted.

Apple and Google can remove apps for a variety of reasons, including issues with an app’s security and whether it complies with platform billing rules. And app reviews can delay release plans and wreak havoc when Musk wants to roll out new features.

In recent years, app stores have begun to take a closer look at user-generated content that turns into violent utterances, or social networks that lack content moderation.

There is precedent for a total ban. Apple and Google banned Parler, a much smaller and more conservative-leaning website, in 2020 after posts on the site related to the 6/14 US Capitol riots and contained calls for violence. In Apple’s case, the decision to ban high-profile apps is being made by a group called the Executive Review Board, which is headed by Schiller – the Apple exec who deleted his Twitter account over the weekend.

Although Apple approved Truth Social, Trump’s social networking app, in February, it took longer for Google Play to approve it. The company told CNBC in August that the social network lacks “effective systems for moderating user-generated content” and is therefore violating Google’s Play Store Terms of Service. Google finally approved the app in October, saying apps must “remove objectionable posts, such as those inciting violence.”

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

Apple and Google have been cautious in banning apps like Parler, citing specific policy violations such as screenshots of the offending posts, rather than citing general political reasons or pressure from lawmakers. On a social network as large as Twitter, it’s often possible to find unreported content.

Still, Apple and Google are unlikely to want to engage in an uphill battle over what is and isn’t malicious information. This could ultimately lead to the public being questioned and political debates being held. It’s possible that app stores will simply delay approving new versions instead of threatening to remove apps entirely.

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

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

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

Anything that is not safe for work must be hidden by default. Twitter currently allows adult content, which could make her more directly targeted by reviewers.

“Apps that contain user-generated content or services that end up being used primarily for pornographic content… don’t belong in the App Store and may be removed without notice,” Apple’s guidelines state.

But Musk often runs toward battles, not away from them. Now he must decide whether it’s worth taking over two of Silicon Valley’s most valuable and powerful companies, with over 30% commissions and Twitter’s ability to host outlandish tweets.

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

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