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Why Elon Musk Is Picking a Fight With Apple

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

A singularly wealthy man who recently purchased his favorite social-media platform for $44 billion — and who has said he hopes to turn it into an all-encompassing “everything app” — has a message for the rest of us: Unaccountable big-tech companies have too much power.

Elon Musk kicked off his second month as Twitter’s owner by picking a fight with one of the only firms on earth large enough to allow the world’s richest person to position himself as an underdog.

The sequence of events is pretty easy to follow; Musk tweeted through it. In his first few weeks running Twitter, he did a few things that made advertisers nervous. He started selling account verification, leading to a corporation-impersonation spree that spooked a bunch of brands. He slashed the teams responsible for moderating content on the platform as well as most of the company’s salespeople, in some cases leaving longtime clients with nobody to call. He announced a mass “amnesty” for banned accounts, meaning the return of tens of thousands of controversial posters, many of whom made life on the platform miserable for other users. More broadly, he suggested a subscription-centric future for the previously ad-centric platform.

This alienated a whole bunch of major advertisers, which decided to pull back from the platform, in part out of caution and a sense of “brand safety” but also because, in the grand scheme of online advertising, Twitter just isn’t very important. Among the companies reducing its spending is Apple, which has reportedly been Twitter’s largest advertiser in recent quarters.

This alone is not quite enough to explain why Musk is talking floridly about a “battle for the future of civilization” and about making an “alternative phone” to protect free speech, however. Apple isn’t just a large advertiser — it’s also a company that has at least some theoretical control over most aspects of Twitter’s business. It decides who gets access to the App Store, through which Twitter users on iPhones and iPads have access to the social-media platform’s app. It also takes a commission on in-app purchases, meaning any future subscription business for Twitter will have to take into account Apple’s 30 percent cut. Social-media platforms have rules about the kinds of content users can publish. Apple has its own rules, too, as well as rules about its rules.

Apple’s App Store guidelines, for example, ban “objectionable” content. “Apps should not include content that is offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust, in exceptionally poor taste, or just plain creepy,” the company tells developers. Apple acknowledges that user-generated content presents “particular challenges” and resolves them by insisting that social networks, and similar apps, must include methods for blocking and reporting objectionable content as well as some sort of method for filtering such content in the first place. A sufficiently understaffed or intentionally unmoderated Twitter would run afoul of these rules, and Apple has banned apps led by bigger companies in the past. (One way to think of Apple is as the closest thing Twitter has to an effective regulator; Musk despises dealing with regulators unless he’s screaming at them.)

These rules are effectuated through a legendarily opaque app-review process, in which everyone from small-time developers to executives at internet giants interacts with a team of nameless reviewers that decides how, and seemingly when, to enforce them. Twitter’s last head of trust and safety, who is no longer at the company, wrote of his experiences dealing with Apple and Google, which controls app access to most Android devices, in the New York Times. “Apple’s guidelines for developers are reasonable and plainly stated,” he said. “In practice, the enforcement of these rules is fraught.” He went on:

In my time at Twitter, representatives of the app stores regularly raised concerns about content available on our platform. On one occasion, a member of an app review team contacted Twitter, saying with consternation that he had searched for “#boobs” in the Twitter app and was presented with … exactly what you’d expect. Another time, on the eve of a major feature release, a reviewer sent screenshots of several days-old tweets containing an English-language racial slur, asking Twitter representatives whether they should be permitted to appear on the service.

Social-media companies have tended to deal with these issues quietly. Notably, Telegram, which has been briefly removed from the App Store over content concerns, blocked some channels at Apple’s request, citing Apple’s policies directly to its users.

In general, Apple and Google’s centralized mobile-app economy has been extremely lucrative for social-media firms. Companies that depend on in-app purchases and subscription revenue, of which Apple takes a substantial cut, have been more vocal with their grievances — Spotify, Epic Games, and Match Group have all waged public battles against App Store policies. But angst has been simmering at the big platforms, too, after a 2021 update to the App Store rules that required developers to ask users to consent to be tracked for advertising purposes. If you use an iPhone, that’s what this screen is about:

Most users don’t consent — why would they? — which has left companies like Meta, Twitter, and Snap with significantly less data to work with, cost them tens of billions of dollars in sales, and contributed to a general collapse in social-media stock prices.

These are the sorts of problems that preoccupy social-media executives — not most of their customers — but that’s what Elon Musk is now. Maybe this is all part of a crusade for speech rights, as he insists, though at this point, you really have to want to believe that one (and plenty of people do). It’s definitely a crusade on behalf of Musk, who would surely like to negotiate a discount on in-app purchases, for example, and of his fellow tech owners and executives, who have been forced to endure an experience with which their own customers and users are plenty familiar: being told by inscrutable platform owners what they can and cannot do.

A few years ago, Apple probably would have brushed this off as a tantrum thrown by an executive at a comparatively minuscule company. Twitter needs Apple, but Apple doesn’t need Twitter. Remember when Mark Zuckerberg tried to make a Facebook phone?

In 2022, Apple is as powerful as it’s ever been, but it might also be a softer target and in a cautious mood. The company has been fighting a lawsuit by Epic Games that is currently in appeal. The European Commission is investigating Apple on antitrust grounds following complaints from Spotify. According to an August report from Politico, the United States Justice Department is in the early stages of “drafting a potential antitrust complaint against Apple” that would focus on the App Store. It’s unclear whether Musk will get what he wants from this, but there may be less harm than ever in trying. Besides, Twitter has less to lose by the day.

Why Elon Musk Is Picking a Fight With Apple