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Apple and Elon Musk's Twitter Accounts Are Headed for a Collision

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

November 23, 2022
17 minutes
minute read

Elon Musk has announced some big plans for Twitter since he took over the social network last month. However, these plans are quite confusing and it's not entirely clear what he intends to do with the platform.

Musk wants to increase the company's revenue from subscriptions while also allowing more "free speech" on the site. This includes restoring previously banned accounts, such as the one owned by former president Donald Trump.

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

One of the biggest risks to Musk's vision for "Twitter 2.0" is that his changes could violate Apple or Google's app rules, which could slow down the company or even get its software booted from app stores.

Tensions are already brewing between Tesla and tech giants Google and Apple. Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk complained about the fees that Google and Apple charge companies like Twitter for use of their app stores.

Musk took to Twitter to voice his opinion on app store fees, calling them "obviously too high" due to the iOS/Android duopoly. He went on to say that this is effectively a hidden 30% tax on the internet, and tagged the Department of Justice's antitrust division in a follow-up post. This division is reportedly investigating app store rules.

Musk is unhappy with the percentage cut that Apple and Google take from in-app purchases, which could reduce the revenue generated from his proposed $8 per month Twitter Blue subscriptions. This is a significant concern for Musk, as this revenue is desperately needed.

Phil Schiller, the former head of Apple marketing and current overseer of the App Store, has apparently deleted his widely-followed Twitter account. The account had hundreds of thousands of followers.

Since Musk has taken over Twitter, there has been an increase in harmful content, which puts the company's apps at risk. In October, shortly after Musk became "chief Twit," a wave of online trolls and bigots flooded the site with hate speech and racist epithets.

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

Musk's plan to offer paid blue verification badges has led to chaos and accounts impersonating major corporations and figures. This has caused some advertisers to shy away from the social network, in particular Eli Lilly, after a fake verified tweet erroneously said insulin would be provided for free.

The app stores were noticed by the users.

"When I left Twitter, the calls from the app review teams began almost immediately," Yoel Roth, former head of trust and safety at Twitter, wrote in the New York Times this month.

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

The relationship between Tesla and its customers is changing, as Elon Musk looks to generate more income from subscriptions. This shift could have a big impact on how people use and purchase Tesla's products.

Twitter reported $5.08 billion in revenue in 2021. If half of that comes from subscriptions in the future, as Musk has said is the goal, hundreds of millions of dollars would end up going to Apple and Google. While this would be a small amount for them, it could be a massive hit for Twitter.

One of Apple's main rules is that digital content purchased inside an iPhone app must use Apple's in-app purchasing mechanism. With this system, Apple bills the user directly and takes a 30% cut of sales. For subscriptions, the cut decreases to 15% after a year. The remainder of the purchase price is then paid to the developer.

Companies such as Epic Games, Spotify, and Match Group have joined the Coalition for App Fairness, which lobbies against Apple and Google’s rules. Microsoft and Meta have also filed briefs in court criticizing the system and made public remarks aimed at app stores.

One option for Musk is to take an approach similar to what Spotify has done: Offer a lower $9.99 price on the web, where it doesn’t pay Apple a cut, and then users simply log in to their existing account inside the app. Users subscribing to a Premium subscription inside the iPhone app pay $12.99, effectively covering Apple’s fees.
Twitter could follow in Netflix's footsteps and stop offering subscriptions through Apple entirely.

Musk could sell Twitter Blue on the company’s website at a cheaper price and tweet to his over 118 million followers that Blue is only available on Twitter.com. It might work and could help cut Apple out of any fees.

This would mean that Twitter would have to remove many options for informing users about the subscription inside the app. Apple has detailed rules about what apps can link to when telling users about alternative ways to pay.

Netflix's app says that you can't sign up for Netflix in the app. They understand that it's a hassle and are working on making it easier.

Musk is up against the might of Apple and Google, who can choose to reject or remove apps that violate their policies on content moderation and harmful content.

Apple has removed over 30,000 apps from its store over objectionable content in 2020, according to a letter the company sent to Congress last year. This is not the first time this has happened.

If Twitter experiences problems with its app store, 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 various reasons, such as security issues and compliance with platform billing rules. App reviews can delay release schedules and cause problems when Musk wants to launch new features.

The app stores have become more vigilant in recent years in regards to user-generated content that could be construed as violent speech or that comes from social networks without adequate content moderation.

Apple and Google's decision to ban Parler in 2020 after posts on the site promoted the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6 and included calls for violence sets a precedent for a complete ban. A group called the Executive Review Board, which is led by Schiller - the Apple executive who deleted his Twitter account over the weekend - makes the decision to ban high-profile apps.

Apple approved Trump's social networking app, Truth Social, in February. However, it took longer for Google Play to approve the app. In August, the company told CNBC that the social network lacked "effective systems for moderating user-generated content" and therefore violated Google's Play Store terms of service. Google eventually approved the app in October, saying that apps need to "remove objectionable posts such as those that incite violence."

Musk reportedly fired many of Twitter's content moderators this month. This has caused some controversy, as many people feel that this will lead to an increase in offensive and inappropriate content on the site.

Apple and Google have been careful while banning apps like Parler, pointing to specific guideline violations like screenshots of the offending posts, instead of citing broad political reasons or pressure from lawmakers. On a social network as large as Twitter, it’s often possible to find content that hasn’t been flagged yet. This allows users to see what content is being removed and why, rather than simply banning the app outright.

Apple and Google are unlikely to want to wade into a difficult battle over what constitutes harmful information and what doesn’t. That could end up inviting public scrutiny and political debate. It’s possible that app stores simply delay approving new versions instead of threatening to remove apps entirely.

Future features of the platform could also prompt a closer look at its current operations by Apple and Google.

Musk has reportedly talked about allowing users to paywall user-generated videos. This would mean that users would have to pay to access certain videos on the site. Some former employees think that this could lead to the feature being used for adult content.

Apple has always banned pornography from its App Store, a policy that dates back to the company's founder, Steve Jobs. Google also bans apps that are focused on sexual content.

Twitter currently allows adult content, which could put it at risk of being flagged by reviewers. To avoid this, anything that isn't safe for work should be hidden by default.

Apple's guidelines state that apps with user-generated content or services that are primarily used for pornographic content do not belong on the App Store and may be removed without notice.

Musk is known for taking on challenges, and he now faces a decision about whether to take on two of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley over fees and Twitter's ability to host edgy tweets.

Apple, Google, and Twitter have all declined to comment on the situation. Musk has also not responded to any requests for comment.

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Eric Ng
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Eric Ng
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John Liu
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Bryan Curtis
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Adan Harris
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Cathy Hills
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