Elon Musk may drag Apple into a battle with Republicans

Tim Cook walks in the Paddock before the F1 US Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2022 in Austin, Texas.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Last week, Twitter owner Elon Musk hit out at Apple, the big Silicon Valley bear that controls the distribution of apps on every iPhone.

Musk has targeted the iPhone maker for a number of issues, including its reduced spending on Twitter ads and a 30 percent cut of all digital sales made through apps. He also accused Apple of threatening to pull the Twitter app from the App Store.

In a since-deleted tweet, Musk suggested he was “going to war.” In another, he asked if Apple hated free speech. Over the weekend, he thought he did to build his own smartphone.

Apple has remained a sleeping bear in the face of Musk’s challenges. He hasn’t commented, nor has CEO Tim Cook, and while its app rating watchdogs may be talking on Twitter behind the scenes about questionable content, Apple hasn’t pulled the app. In fact, Twitter received an update via app review last week.

Twitter is not that important to Apple from a business perspective. It’s just one of a huge number of apps in the App Store, and it’s not a huge profit for Apple through in-app purchases.

But on Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ohio Sen.-elect JD Vance, both Republicans, made remarks about Apple’s situation that show how Musk could put Apple in trouble.

Here’s one way it could go:

  • Musk is making a change at Twitter to circumvent Apple’s 30% fees, such as allowing users to link their credit cards to the app to sign up for Twitter Blue or other new features.
  • Apple is withdrawing the app due to these violations.
  • Musk is framing the dispute with Apple as an issue of free speech and content moderation, and Republican politicians agree.
  • Apple is embroiled in a nationwide debate over free speech and monopoly power centered around its App Store.

How things could turn out

On Tuesday DeSantis said in a press conference that if Apple started Twitter, it would show that Apple has monopoly power and that Congress should look into it. DeSantis framed it as a free speech issue — many conservatives believe that social networks, including Twitter, generally discriminate against conservative views.

“You’re also hearing reports that Apple is threatening to remove Twitter from the App Store because Elon Musk is actually opening it up for free speech and bringing back a lot of accounts that were unfairly and illegally suspended for posting accurate information about Covid,” DeSantis. he said.

“If Apple responds to this by going nuclear from the app store, I think that would be a huge, huge mistake and a really crude exercise of monopoly power,” he continued.

Vance framed the situation similarly in a tweet, saying that if Apple pulled Twitter, “That would be the most egregious 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 over the content. While Apple regularly bans apps for questionable content, it’s rarely big brands like Twitter — it’s usually smaller, lesser-known apps. Apple’s rules for apps with significant user-generated content, such as Twitter, focus on whether they have content filtering systems or content moderation processes in place and focus less on specific types of infringing content. Twitter has both, though Musk’s recent cuts to Twitter staff could hurt its ability to flag problematic posts.

However, Apple would be much more likely to pull the Twitter app if it tries to cut Apple out of its platform fees.

It’s happened again. In 2020, Fortnite added a system to its iPhone app that allowed users to buy in-game currency directly from Epic Games, taking a cut of the 30% of sales that Apple usually receives. Apple removed Fortnite from the App Store the same day. (The episode set off a legal battle that Apple won in most cases, but is currently on appeal.)

Musk has good business reasons for choosing this race.

Specifically, Musk wants Twitter to make much more money from direct subscriptions rather than ads. But Apple’s 30% cut of in-app purchases is a major setback for a cost-cutting company with a significant debt load. (Google takes a similar cut of Android apps sold through the Play Store, but also allows other Android app stores to exist and allows users to “load” apps directly onto their phones, while Apple has an exclusive lock on all distribution iPhone apps. )

So Musk could make an Epic Games move and allow instant billing, prompting Apple to take action while also framing the debate around free speech. If that were the case, as DeSantis suggested, perhaps Congress would start asking questions. Apple would become a football in political debates. Executives could be forced to testify or provide written answers.

At the very least, you’d have lawmakers like Vance using the words “monopoly” and “Apple” in the same sentence. This is a risk to the Apple brand. Debate over these issues could reactivate pending regulations, such as the Open Markets Act, which threatens its control of the App Store and its significant profits.

The last time Apple pulled an app popular with conservatives (in the absence of content moderation) was Parler in January 2021. It was reinstated in April.

In the interim, Apple has faced formal inquiries from Republican senators Ken Buck and Mike Lee about why Parler was removed from the App Store. Cook appeared on Fox News to defend the company’s decision.

Twitter is a much more important and well-known social network than Parler was, and would get more attention.

It’s probably the most valuable thing for Apple if Twitter stays on the platform, and the controversy-averse iPhone maker would likely want all of that Elon Musk narrative gone.

Indeed, it could go like this: Apple remains silent, working with Twitter behind the scenes on its app, and Musk tweets about the 30% reduction when it bothers him. Nothing really changes.

But Musk is unpredictable, and if he really wants to “go to war” with fees above 30%, Apple could be in trouble.

Apple and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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