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By Jake Denton*
Elon Musk recently revealed that Apple had threatened to remove Twitter from its App Store. Two days later, after meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Musk tweeted that the threat was simply a misunderstanding.
Musk’s free speech aspirations for Twitter appear to be what put the company in Apple’s crosshairs. While Musk may have dodged a bullet this time, the prospect of a ruinous delisting will loom as long as Apple’s duopoly (alongside Google) over the app market endures. This control has made Apple one of the most powerful gatekeepers of the internet.
Abuse of Power
Since Musk’s Twitter acquisition, the platform has focused on regaining the trust of its users. Notably, Musk has prioritized restoring the accounts of users that he believes were wrongfully banned. Twitter’s reinstatement of the accounts of Donald Trump, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), and the Babylon Bee undid a multi-year effort to deplatform the most disruptive voices on the right, and Musk is just getting started. Over the course of the coming weeks, Twitter intends to grant “amnesty” to more than 60,000 accounts that were wrongfully banned.
While Musk’s free speech agenda may be supported by his own poll of Twitter users, some in Silicon Valley have not been shy about voicing their opposition. Apple joined a coalition of woke corporations intent on derailing Musk’s agenda. While most in the coalition could only withhold their advertising funds, Apple wields unique power over the internet. For mobile app developers and social media companies, App Store access is critical to the success of their business. As Musk noted, “Apple and Google effectively control access to most of the Internet via their app stores.” When a company is delisted from the App Store, they lose access to their customers. That is an immediate, existential problem.
Due to the effective absence of regulatory oversight in Silicon Valley, Apple has captured the mobile app market and is using its power to abuse rivals and stifle competition. When mobile app developers list their applications on the App Store, Apple forces them to consent to handing over 30 percent of all in-app transactions. When developers push back against this, Apple can move hastily to delist their application and impede their business.
Apple’s abuse of mobile developers is not just limited to this so-called “Apple tax.” The company also uses its power to advance political positions. When free speech alternatives to Twitter emerged, Apple—along with Google and Amazon—swiftly removed them from the marketplace.
Apple also stands accused of harassing Telegram, another free speech application that is an alternative to the left’s censorship apparatus in Silicon Valley. When Telegram attempts to roll out new updates for its users, Apple reportedly delays approval of the update. This damages the user experience and threatens Telegram’s ability to stay relevant.
Apple has a history of questionable business practices. While the company may be based in Cupertino and incorporated in the United States, Apple does not always act like an American company. Instead of advancing American values, Apple often choses to work with the oppressive Chinese Communist Party.
Abuse of Politics
When protesters in China took to the streets this month to oppose the regime’s harsh COVID lockdowns, Apple was quick to help the communist government of China by disabling AirDrop, the primary method of communication for the protesters.
Three years earlier, when the citizens of Hong Kong protested against the Chinese government, Apple similarly removed the app that protesters had been using to communicate and organize. When Apple chose this course of action in Hong Kong, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. lawmakers swiftly drafted a letter to Apple’s CEO Tim Cook voicing their concerns over the company’s cooperation with the CCP. Where is that bipartisan coalition of concerned lawmakers now? Why are they not concerned about Apple repressing the free speech of Americans?
Apple doesn’t just take orders from China, they depend on China for labor and the manufacturing of their flagship devices, such as the iPhone. In 2016, the company reportedly entered a nearly $275 billion deal with Chinese officials to develop China’s “technological prowess” and economy. As Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) noted in a recent letter to Tim Cook, nearly 95 percent of Apple’s iPhones are now made in Chinese factories. Further, China is Apple’s second largest consumer market, making up more than a fifth of the company’s revenue.
Apple is clearly eager to work with the CCP, even if it means helping the regime suppress free speech. Yet the company seems loath to cooperate with the U.S. government, even on matters of national security. When FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr asked Apple to remove TikTok from the App Store, Apple chose to keep the app available to American consumers—even though the CCP uses the app to spy on the United States.
Another, wider point, is that Musk has expressed his interest in building an “X” app similar to China’s WeChat. The Chinese app is owned by the same tech giant, Tencent, which owns a number of video game studios, music apps, and more. It allows for far more than social media, including payment processing, instant messaging, and multiplayer games. China evidently wants to keep its monopoly in this area, and Apple may well be willing to hear their protests.
Regardless of how the battle between Twitter and Apple unfolds, this paradigm cannot continue. Instead of allowing Silicon Valley to “self-regulate,” the next Congress must act to end the abuses of Big Tech. Lawmakers who are serious about ending the totalitarian behavior of these mega-corporations must prioritize the advancement of legislative reforms that directly confront these practices.
*Jake is a research associate in the Tech Policy Center at The Heritage Foundation.
This article is part of an agreement between El American and The Heritage Foundation.