Apple could sink Elon Musk's Twitter by yanking it from the App Store. But it would put Apple in jeopardy too.




Elon Musk Tim Cook
Elon Musk Tim Cook  
  • Elon Musk is claiming that Apple threatened to remove Twitter from its App Store.

  • While Apple could find a reason to take Twitter off the App Store, it likely will not, experts said.

  • A move like that would bring more anti-trust scrutiny on Apple, and wouldn't be a smart move.

Elon Musk claimed earlier this week that Apple threatened to remove Twitter from its App Store and accused the iPhone maker of censorship and monopolistic practices.

Musk isn't alone in complaining about fees. Many developers, tech CEOs, and others think Apple's App Store is an anti-competitive monopoly because it requires using its in-house payment processing service. Apple charges a 30% fee on content sales made through the App Store.

But Musk is also shining a light on what Apple decides to moderate on its App Store.

So, could Apple actually take Twitter off the App Store? And if it can, would it?

Experts say Apple could find a reason to take Twitter off the App Store, and doing so would devastate the company.

iPhones account for about 50% of smartphone usage in the US, meaning the majority of people use iOS. Removing the app would effectively kill easy access for half of Twitter's potential audience.

"Twitter needs Apple as a lifeline for its app, and that's why Musk picking a fight with Apple is not a smart move in our opinion," said Wedbush analyst Dan Ives.

But engaging in a fight with Twitter and its new owner would also increase the antitrust criticism Apple is currently getting about its App Store policies.

"We believe at the end of the day Apple would cause a major antitrust issue and political firestorm if they took Twitter off the App Store," said Ives. "This would start a much broader problem that Apple does not want now."

Apple has removed apps in the past. When Epic Games launched its own payment mechanism to avoid Apple's fees, Apple booted it from the App Store. Epic Games then sued Apple on antitrust grounds in 2020. An initial ruling issued in 2021 largely favored Apple, but the judge did say Apple must allow app makers to monetize their apps without paying Apple. Both sides are currently appealing the decision.

Because Musk is looking for new ways to bring revenue into Twitter, like Twitter Blue monthly subscription, paying Apple 30% of anything Twitter brings in stings.

"It's absolutely a factor in whatever brewing flight there is between Apple and Twitter," said Mitch Stoltz, the competition director and senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

While the precedent set by the Epic Games lawsuit means Apple likely can't kick Twitter out of the App Store for reasons related to in-app fees, they could find a reason pertaining to privacy or harassment on Twitter, experts said.

Apple's policies say that apps with user-generated content, like social media platforms, must have strong content moderation systems.

Musk has dramatically slashed Twitter's content moderation staff since taking over. That could be a basis for Apple to remove Twitter from the App Store, Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies said. Lack of strong moderation was the reason Apple used for removing right-wing social media app Parler in 2020. 

However, that would be a slippery slope for Apple because apps like Facebook also have online harassment and widespread misinformation, Milanesi said.

"Where do you draw the line," she said. "They are very careful about not creating a precedent."

Stoltz agreed and said, "It's pretty hard, especially for an outsider, to say this violates Apple's content policies and this doesn't violate Apple's content policies. Those policies are broad and vaguely stated."

Apple could also remove Twitter for not removing inappropriate content like child pornography on its platform. In 2018, Apple removed Tumblr from the App Store because reviewers found Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) that did not appear in the PhotoDNA database of known CSAM (which was used to filter all uploads).

"Twitter, meanwhile, has a lot of porn, which has always been in a gray area as far as Apple is concerned; it is also certainly possible that Twitter's reduction in content moderation staff means it is more likely that truly objectionable stuff ends up on the service," Stratechery's Ben Thompson wrote in his newsletter on Wednesday.

Even then, Apple still likely won't remove Twitter from its App Store, because picking a fight with Elon would exacerbate antitrust criticism of Apple.

There are pending bills in Congress pushing for Apple and Google to stop using anti-competitive tactics in their app stores. Forcing Twitter, a platform popular with both the media and politicians, off the App Store could revive interest in that legislation.

"There's a lot of attention right now on the control that Apple has over content and speech and discourse on its platforms," Stoltz said.

And Elon Musk is now putting even more attention on it. If Apple is smart and cautious - and it usually is - it'll avoid taking the bait.

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