SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk attends a joint press conference with T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert (not pictured) at SpaceX Starbase in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., on August 25, 2022.
Addresses Latif | Reuters
Elon Musk has announced big, if confusing, plans for Twitter since he took over the social network last month.
Musk wants to significantly increase the revenue the company generates through subscriptions while opening up the site to more “free speech,” which in some cases appears to mean the reinstatement of previously banned accounts, such as one belonging to former President Donald Trump.
But Musk’s plans for Twitter could put him at odds with the two biggest tech companies: Apple and Google.
Tension is brewing
One of the biggest risks to Musk’s vision for “Twitter 2.0″ is a possibility that its changes are disruptive an apple or Google app rules in a way that slows down the company or even forces its software to be downloaded from app stores.
The tension is already brewing. Musk complained on Twitter last week about the app store fees that Google and Apple charge companies like Twitter.
“App store fees are clearly too high due to the iOS/Android duopoly,” Musk tweeted. “It’s a hidden 30% internet tax.” In a follow-up message, he identified the Justice Department’s antitrust division as reportedly investigating the app store’s rules.
His complaint relates to Apple and Google’s 15% to 30% cut from in-app purchases, which could eat up desperately needed revenue from Musk’s $8-a-month plans for Twitter Blue subscriptions.
Over the weekend, Phil Schiller, Apple’s former head of marketing who still oversees the App Store, apparently deleted his well-followed Twitter account, which has hundreds of thousands of followers.
Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing for 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 harmful content since Musk took over, putting the company’s program at risk. In October, shortly after Musk became “Twit-in-Chief,” a wave of internet trolls and bigots flooded the site with hate speech and racist epithets.
Trolls organized on 4chan, then invaded Twitter with anti-black and anti-Jewish epithets. Twitter has suspended many accounts, according to the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute.
Musk’s plan to offer paid blue verification badges has also led to chaos and accounts impersonating major corporations and figures, prompting some advertisers to shy away from the social network, notably Eli Lilly after a fake verified tweet mistakenly said insulin would be provided for free.
App stores have taken notice.
“And when I left the company, the calls from app review teams had already started,” Twitter’s former head of trust and security Joel Roth wrote in the New York Times this month.
Twitter and Apple have been partners for years. In 2011, Apple deeply integrated tweets into the your iOS operating system. The tweets, which function as official company messages, are regularly posted under the account of Apple CEO Tim Cook. Apple has been promoting the new iPhones and its big events on Twitter.
But that relationship seems likely to change as Musk earns more revenue 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 end up going to Apple and Google — a small sum for them, but a potentially massive hit for Twitter.
One of Apple’s core rules is that digital content—game coins, avatar outfits, or a premium subscription—purchased in an iPhone app must use Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism, in which Apple bills the user directly. Apple takes 30% of sales, decreasing 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 regulations as part of the Coalition for App Fairness. Microsoft and Meta also filed lawsuits 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 price of $9.99 online, where Apple doesn’t pay, and then users simply sign in to their existing account in the app. Users who sign up for a premium subscription in the iPhone app pay $12.99, effectively covering Apple’s fees.
Or Twitter could go further, like Netflix, which completely stopped offering subscriptions through Apple in 2018.
Musk could sell Twitter Blue on the company’s website at a lower price and message his more than 118 million followers that Blue is only available on Twitter.com. This could work and save Apple from any fees.
But it also means that Twitter will have to remove many options for informing users about subscriptions inside the app, where they are most likely to make a purchase decision. And Apple has detailed rules about which apps can be referenced when telling users about alternative payment methods.
As the Netflix app says: “You can’t sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it’s a hassle.”
The power struggle for content moderation
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., speaks during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S., Monday, June 4, 2018.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Musk is up against the power of Apple and Google and their ability to refuse to approve or even remove apps that violate their rules on content moderation and harmful content.
If Twitter has problems with its app store, it could be “catastrophic,” according to former Twitter head of trust and security Roth. Twitter lists app review as a risk factor in SEC filings, he noted.
Apple and Google can remove apps for a variety of reasons, such as security issues with the app and whether it complies with the platform’s billing rules. And app reviews can delay release schedules and cause chaos whenever Musk wants to launch new features.
In the past few years, app stores have begun to scrutinize user-generated content that starts to turn into violent speech 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 site, in 2020 after posts on the site promoted a riot at the US Capitol on January 6 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 chaired by Schiller — an Apple executive who deleted his Twitter account over the weekend.
Although Apple approved Truth Social, Trump’s social media app, in February, Google Play took longer to approve it. In August, the company told CNBC that the social network lacked “effective systems for moderating user-generated content” and was therefore violating the Google Play Store’s terms of service. Google eventually approved the app in October, saying it needed to “remove objectionable 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 to ban apps like Parler, pointing to specific violations of the guidelines, such as screenshots of offensive messages, rather than citing broad political reasons or pressure from lawmakers. On a large social network like Twitter, you can often find content that hasn’t been flagged yet.
However, Apple and Google are unlikely to want to get into an uphill battle over what constitutes harmful information and what does not. This can lead to public scrutiny and political debate. It’s possible that app stores are simply delaying approving new versions instead of threatening to remove apps entirely.
Future features could also annoy Apple and Google and prompt a closer look at the platform’s current operations.
Musk has reportedly talked about allowing users to pay for user-generated videos — which former employees say 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 company founder Steve Jobs, and Google also bans sexually oriented apps.
Anything that is dangerous to work should be hidden by default. Twitter currently allows adult content, which could put it even more in the reviewers’ eyes.
“Apps with user-generated content or services that end up being used primarily for pornographic content … are not part of the App Store and may be removed without notice,” Apple’s guidelines said.
But Musk often runs toward battles, not away from them. Now he has to decide whether to fight two of Silicon Valley’s most valuable and powerful companies for 30% commissions and Twitter’s ability to post 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 the tweet.