Apple warned not to ‘nuke’ Twitter in free speech row with Musk

Tim Cook - SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Tim Cook - SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Republican rising star Ron DeSantis has warned Apple that banning Twitter from the iPhone would be a “huge mistake” as a row rages over free speech on the social network.

The Florida governor, seen as a leading contender for the presidency in 2024, on Tuesday praised changes pushed through at Twitter by Elon Musk, including the end of bans for right-wing politicians such as Donald Trump.

But he said he was concerned by reports that Apple could respond by stopping users from downloading the Twitter app through the iPhone App Store.

DeSantis claimed previous executives at the social media platform had tried to “suffocate dissent” against lockdowns during the Covid pandemic.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis - Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Florida governor Ron DeSantis - Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Elon Musk knows that’s not a winning formula and so he’s providing free speech,” DeSantis told journalists on Tuesday.

“If Apple responds to that by nuking them from the App Store, I think that would be a huge, huge mistake and it would be a really raw exercise of monopolistic power that would merit a response from the United States Congress.”

His intervention comes as a row continues over a string of changes at Twitter since Musk bought the company for $44bn last month.

The billionaire behind Tesla and SpaceX – a self-described free speech absolutist – has vowed to make the social network a “town square” for the world where all but the most extreme or violent examples of speech should be welcome.

But in response he claimed Apple had cut off advertising spending and threatened to ban Twitter from the App Store - potentially stopping iPhone users from downloading or updating the app.

“Do they hate free speech in America?," the billionaire tweeted, before adding: “What’s going on here @Tim_Cook?”

The feud between the world’s richest person and its most valuable company may initially seem like a simple clash of vested interests, with Apple one of several major companies that have paused Twitter advertising in recent weeks.

But underlying the row, experts say, is another more salient issue: the enormous influence Apple has over what many of us see and hear on the internet.

Through its iPhone and App Store - first unveiled by the late Steve Jobs 14 years ago - Apple has become a gatekeeper of content for hundreds of millions of customers who use its products and services every day.

This is because iPhone apps can only be downloaded through the App Store - and what appears on the store is fastidiously curated by the tech giant.

Elon Musk - Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images
Elon Musk - Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

It means that although Apple’s software is ostensibly just what we use to look at Twitter, Tim Cook and other top executives also wield enormous power over what appears on the social media platform as well.

That power was clearly demonstrated after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in January 2021, when Apple banned the social network Parler for failing to take “adequate measures” to crack down on threats of violence and people organising illegal activity.

Cook later said the decision was taken because of Parler’s inability to moderate content such as hate speech, breaching the rules of Apple’s App Store.

"We obviously don’t control what’s on the internet,” he said, “but we’ve never viewed that our platform should be a simple replication of the internet. We have rules and regulations, and we just ask that people abide by those."

Twitter and Parler are not the only companies Apple has clashed with. Since the App Store’s inception, the company has warned developers that the marketplace is a walled garden - with every app reviewed for its suitability by Apple staff.

“Will there be limitations? Of course,” founder Jobs told an audience in 2008. “There are gonna be some apps we're not going to distribute. Porn, malicious apps, apps that invade your privacy.”

Apple has argued over the years that this has created a “safe and secure” experience for consumers that also benefits developers, who get to put their creations in front of a global audience.

But as the years have gone on, some app creators have chafed against these restrictions and claimed Apple’s interference has a pernicious influence on both competition and free speech.

Epic Games, the maker of video game sensation Fortnite, unsuccessfully sued the iPhone maker two years ago, arguing that forcing developers to hand over one third of in-app revenues was anti-competitive.

In a separate clash, music app Spotify accused Apple of dirty tricks such as using control of the App Store to unfairly promote the Apple Music app above rivals.

Apple’s lawyers said both companies had been perfectly happy to use the App Store while it benefited them but were seeking to cherry-pick its terms after becoming successful.

Yet the issues, among others, are being investigated by competition regulators at the European Commission, while Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority continues to probe the restrictions Apple places on App Store developers.

Tim Sweeney, Epic’s boss, was among those who rushed to Musk’s defence this week, claiming Apple is “a menace to freedom worldwide”.

And David Sacks, a contemporary of Musk from their PayPal days, claimed Apple enjoyed more power than any tech company before it “with the possible exception of Microsoft in the late 90s”.

“Few application companies will dare to criticise Apple publicly even though almost all privately voice similar concerns as [Musk],” he tweeted.

Outside of western markets, Apple has also been accused of hypocrisy.

Chief executive Cook, who was feted with a free expression award in 2017, has long sought to portray his company as a champion of human rights, claiming it would always defend “unpopular opinions” and freedom of speech.

But things have not been so straightforward in China, where Apple produces many of its iPhones and makes one fifth of its $394bn in annual sales.

There, the company has been accused of censoring the App Store at the behest of Beijing and complying with laws that require it to store Chinese data in the mainland - potentially leaving anti-government activists exposed.

According to the US-based Tech Transparency Project, Chinese iPhone users are unavailable to access thousands of apps related to censored subjects, including privacy tools, Tibetan Buddhism, Hong Kong protests and gay rights.

Apple says the removal of apps at the Chinese government’s request largely relate to illegal gambling and pornography. The company’s own figures, published in a biannual transparency report, say it received just 60 requests to remove apps from authorities in the year to June 2021 and complied with all of them.

But Tech Transparency says the true number of apps excluded from the App Store is far higher - numbering more than 3,000 - and that much of this may be due to pre-emptive censorship.

Katie Paul, the charity’s director, claims the company’s efforts to “bend over backwards” to remain in Beijing are “putting up roadblocks to free speech” for Chinese citizens.

She also says the iPhone maker is ill-placed to criticise other platforms for failing to moderate content properly, after Tech Transparency research found podcasts on Apple’s own platforms that urged listeners to call up and threaten doctors who were treating people with the coronavirus.

“You have the company making efforts to censor in China, and at the same time failing to enforce its own policies in countries like the US, so we really don't see any logical consistency in the way it is implementing these things,” she adds.

That is a similar message to the one delivered on Tuesday by DeSantis, who warned Apple it could not act as a “vassal” for Beijing on one hand “and then use your corporate power in the United States on the other to suffocate Americans and try to suppress their right to express themselves”.

So far, Apple has not responded publicly. But with the company facing scrutiny, it is a position that looks ever more difficult to square.