SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk attends a joint press conference with T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert (not pictured) at SpaceX’s Starbase, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., Aug. 25, 2022.
Adrees Latiff | Reuters
Elon Musk has announced big, if confusing, plans for Twitter since he took over the social network last month.
Musk wants to dramatically increase the revenue the company makes through subscriptions by opening up the site to more “free speech,” which in some cases appears to mean reinstating previously banned accounts like one owned by former President Donald Trump.
But Musk’s plans for Twitter could put him at odds with two of the biggest tech companies: Apple and Google.
Tensions are growing
One of the biggest risks to Musk’s vision for “Twitter 2.0″ is the possibility that its changes violate Apple or by Google app rules in a way that slows down the company or even causes its software to be booted from app stores.
Tensions are already growing. Musk complained in a tweet just last week about the app store fees Google and Apple charge companies like Twitter.
“App Store fees are obviously too high due to the iOS/Android duopoly,” Musk tweeted. “It’s a 30% hidden tax on the Internet.” In a follow-up post, he tagged the Justice Department’s antitrust division, which is reportedly investigating the app store’s rules.
His gripe is about the 15% to 30% cut Apple and Google take from in-app purchases, which could dent desperately needed revenue from Musk’s plans for $8 a month from Twitter Blue subscriptions.
Over the weekend, Phil Schiller, the former Apple marketing executive who still oversees the App Store, apparently deleted his widely followed Twitter account with 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 malicious content since Musk took over, putting 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.
Trolls organized on 4chan, then flocked to Twitter with anti-Black and Jewish epithets. Twitter has suspended many of the accounts, according to the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute.
Musk’s plan to offer paid blue verified badges has also led to chaos and accounts impersonating large corporations and figures, which caused some advertisers to shy away from the social network, most notably Eli Lilly after a fake verified tweet incorrectly said that free insulin would be provided.
The app stores have noticed.
“And by the time I left the company, the calls from the app review teams had already started,” Twitter’s former head of trust and security Yoel Roth wrote in the New York Times this month.
Twitter and Apple have been partners for years. In 2011, Apple deeply integrated tweets into its iOS operating system. Tweets that serve as official corporate communications are regularly posted to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s account. Apple advertised the new iPhones and its big launch events on Twitter.
But the relationship looks set to change as Musk moves to generate a majority of subscription revenue.
Twitter reported $5.08 billion in revenue in 2021. If half of that came from subscriptions in the future, as Musk said is the goal, hundreds of millions of dollars would end up going to Apple and Google — a small sum for them, but a potentially huge success for Twitter.
One of Apple’s primary rules is that digital content (game coins, avatar attire, or a premium subscription) purchased within an iPhone app must use Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism, where Apple bills the user directly. Apple takes 30% of sales, dropping to 15% after a year for subscriptions, and pays the rest to the developer.
Companies like Epic Games, SpotifyAnd Group match lobby against Apple and Google rules as part of the Coalition for App Fairness. Microsoft And Half they’ve also filed court briefs criticizing the system and made public remarks aimed at app stores.
One option for Musk is to take a similar approach to what Spotify has done: offer a lower price of $9.99 on the web, where he doesn’t pay a cut to Apple, and then users simply log into their existing account within of the app. Users who sign up for a Premium subscription within the iPhone app pay $12.99, effectively covering Apple’s fees.
Or Twitter could go further, like Netflix, which stopped offering subscriptions through Apple entirely in 2018.
Musk could sell Twitter Blue on the company’s website for a cheaper price and tweet to his more than 118 million followers that Blue is only available on Twitter.com. It could work, and it could help cut Apple off any fees.
But that also means that Twitter would have to remove many options for informing users about their subscription within the app, where they’re more likely to make a purchasing decision. And Apple has detailed rules about which apps can link when communicating alternative ways to pay to users.
As the Netflix app says: “You can’t sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it’s a pain.”
A power struggle over content moderation
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., speaks during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S. on Monday, June 4, 2018.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Musk addresses the power of Apple and Google and their ability to refuse to approve or even pull apps that violate their content moderation and harmful content rules.
If app store issues hit Twitter, it could be “catastrophic,” according to Twitter’s former 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 various reasons, such as issues with an app’s security and whether it complies with the platform’s billing rules. And app reviews can delay release schedules and wreak havoc whenever Musk wants to roll out new features.
In recent years, app stores have begun to take a closer look at user-generated content that begins to fade into violent talk or social networks lacking content moderation.
There is precedent for a total ban. Apple and Google banned Parler, a much smaller, conservative-leaning site, in 2020 after posts on the site promoted the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6 and included calls for violence. In Apple’s case, the decision to ban high-profile apps was made by a group called the Executive Review Board, led by Schiller, the Apple executive who deleted his Twitter account over the weekend.
Although Apple approved Trump’s social networking app Truth Social in February, it took Google Play longer to approve it. The company told CNBC in August that the social network lacked “effective systems for moderating user-generated content” and therefore violated Google’s Play Store terms of service. Google finally approved the app in October, saying apps must “remove objectionable posts like those inciting violence.”
Musk reportedly fired several of Twitter’s contact content moderators this month.
Apple and Google have been careful in banning apps like Parler, pointing to specific guideline violations like screenshots of offending posts, instead of citing broad political reasons or pressure from lawmakers. On a social network as big as Twitter, you can often find content that hasn’t been reported yet.
However, Apple and Google are unlikely to want to get into an uphill battle over what constitutes harmful information and what isn’t. This could end up inviting public scrutiny and political debate. It’s possible that app stores will simply delay approving new releases instead of threatening to remove apps entirely.
Future features could also annoy Apple and Google and require a closer look at the platform’s current operations.
Musk has reportedly talked about allowing users to pay for user-generated videos, something former employees think would lead to the use of the adult content feature.
Apple’s App Store has never allowed pornography, a policy that dates back to the company’s founder, Steve Jobs, and Google also bans apps that focus on sexual content.
Anything that isn’t safe for work should be hidden by default. Twitter currently allows adult content, which could put it even more directly into reviewers’ sights.
“Apps with user-generated content or services that end up being used primarily for pornographic content … do not belong in the App Store and may be removed without notice,” Apple’s guidelines state.
But Musk often runs towards battles, not away from them. Now he must decide whether it’s worth taking on two of Silicon Valley’s most valuable and powerful companies over 30% commissions and Twitter’s ability to host edgy 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 did not respond to a tweet.