Elon Musk's war with Apple shows just how much power Tim Cook has over how we all use the internet

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Apple CEO Tim Cook.  
  • Elon Musk is criticizing Apple's App Store policies, and other tech CEOs have voiced support.

  • Musk, who has 119 million Twitter followers, brings new attention to Apple's tight control of iOS apps.

  • Apple successfully defended its policies in previous court battles, but Musk poses a new headache.

Tim Cook can't be happy that Elon Musk has decided to wage  a "war" against Apple.

Musk is a powerful, vocal person with powerful, vocal friends, and his continued criticism promises to shine a very public light on how much power Apple has over Twitter and other app-based businesses - a headache for a company that has been forced to defend its policies in court and before Congress in the past.

Musk laid out his main critique bluntly in a tweet reply to fellow "PayPal Mafia" member David Sacks: that Apple, as well as Google, "effectively control access to most of the Internet via their app stores."

If Apple, for instance, decides that it doesn't approve of a certain app, it can yank it from the App Store - essentially vanishing it from a good chunk of the internet, or at least the nearly 50% of the US market that uses an iPhone.

It did just this with the app Parler, which Apple removed following the January 6 Capitol siege. Parler beefed up its moderation policies and Apple let it back onto the App Store, but the company described it as a "PG" version with "enhanced threat-and-incitement reporting tools." Now, Musk is loosening Twitter's content-moderation policies and tech observers say Apple could pull it from the App Store, too. An Apple spokesperson did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment on Musk's statements ahead of publication.

Musk says that's simply too much power for one company to wield. And while other companies - most notably, Fortnite maker Epic Games - have sued Apple, the company has stood firm: It retains its role as a gatekeeper.

But with Musk making noise, will more people take notice?

Already, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, said Tuesday that Congress should act if Twitter is ever banned from the App Store.

And if Musk does end up tossing the match that eventually lights a fire that forces Apple to change, that could eat into one of its biggest cash cows: Apple takes a 30% cut from any in-app sales made through its App Store. Musk has taken aim at that, too.

Musk claimed that Apple already threatened to withhold Twitter from the App Store. (When asked two weeks ago about the possibility of removing Twitter, Apple CEO Cook told CBS News, "They say that they are going to continue to moderate ... I count on them to do that.")

Musk, a self-described "free speech absolutist" who likes to make changes quickly at the companies he runs, could ultimately find his vision for Twitter limited by Apple's policies. Failure to comply with its policies risks Twitter's removal from the App Store, which would undoubtedly harm Twitter's bottom line.

Twitter has said as much, writing in a December 2021 SEC filing that its mobile business is "dependent upon and can be impacted by digital storefront operators, such as the Apple App Store and Google Play Store review teams."

It's a concern for any business that makes an app - and Musk's comments have led others in the tech industry to rehash their past criticisms of the iPhone maker.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney have voiced support for Musk's comments on Apple.

Sweeney knows what it's like to go head-to-head with the company. Apple removed Epic's hit game "Fortnite" from the App Store in 2020, after Epic began allowing players to directly pay the company for in-game purchases, violating Apple's policies. Epic sued Apple, claiming it engaged in "unfair and anti-competitive actions."

It's lawsuits like Epic's, which include a discovery process, depositions, and testimonies, that Apple wants to avoid. While a judge ultimately ruled last year that Apple's practices were not monopolistic, the ruling still ordered Apple to allow app developers the ability to link out to alternative ways of making purchases that would avoid the so-called Apple tax.

Concessions like the one from Apple's battle with Epic can impact Apple's services business, which brought in over $19 billion in revenue in its fiscal fourth quarter. Apple has appealed the ruling in the Epic court trial.

Musk is now trying to put Apple in the hot seat, a seat that Tim Cook and Apple have largely tried to avoid.

On Tuesday, Musk tweeted "the people have spoken," in response to a Monday poll he posted asking "Apple should publish all censorship actions it has taken that affect its customers."

Over 84% of the 2.2 million responses voted "yes."


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