Assuming Twitter can survive the whiplash of being yanked back and forth by new CEO Elon Musk—yet another round of layoffs roiled the sales team Monday morning—the social media platform is shaping up to face a new challenge: possible headbutting with Apple and Google. That is, if Musk’s laissez-faire approach to moderation ends up putting Twitter at odds with developer policies on the major app stores, Musk’s platforming of hateful content could get Twitter itself deplatformed.
The Apple App Store, Google Play, and even smaller players like the Amazon Appstore, have language intended to protect users from discrimination, bullying, harassment, and other kinds of objectionable content. As Twitter veers more in the direction of freewheeling right-wing social apps like Truth Social and Parler, the company could be on a collision course with those app stores’ gatekeepers.
Musk’s approach toward moderation has been inconsistent, to say the least. Most recently he’s argued that Twitter’s new policy is “Freedom of speech, not freedom of reach.” This past weekend, he restored the accounts for Donald Trump and Kanye West, the latter of whom was blocked for going on antisemitic rants. West immediately celebrated his return by tweeting, “Shalom : ).”
Musk reactivated other controversial accounts, too, such as right-wing satire site Babylon Bee’s and podcaster Jordan Peterson’s, both suspended for posting anti-trans comments. Musk previously said he’d hold off on making changes to Twitter’s policies until a “content moderation council” was in place to help him.
“Even as he criticizes the capriciousness of platform policies, he perpetuates the same lack of legitimacy through his impulsive changes and tweet-length pronouncements about Twitter’s rules,” Twitter’s own former head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, wrote Friday in a New York Times op-ed following his resignation. “Musk has made clear that at the end of the day, he’ll be the one calling the shots.”
Among the ideas Musk has reportedly batted around: introducing some sort of OnlyFans-style subscription service that would seem to violate bans on sexually explicit material found in many places. Meanwhile, Musk’s layoffs have culled the number of full-time and contract moderators employed to track harmful content and enforce Twitter’s rules against it.
Twitter doesn’t break down how many people use the website version versus the smartphone app. But Roth warned that expulsion from the Apple and Google app stores “would be catastrophic.” He pointed readers to Twitter’s most recent (and final!) annual report to shareholders, informing them that the release of new products “is dependent upon” and “can be impacted by” the gatekeeper teams at those app stores. “Certain decisions may harm our business,” the report notes.
Their stores, their rules
To create “a safe experience for users,” Apple’s developer guidelines state that apps may not include content that is sexually explicit, discriminatory, mean-spirited, or “just plain creepy,” among other things. This, of course, includes commentary that targets users’ “religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, [or] national/ethnic origin.” Admittedly, Apple could be clearer about what crosses those lines; its guidelines literally quote the “I know it when I see it” line that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to explain what is and isn’t pornography. (The company didn’t respond to a request to clarify what content violates the App Store rules, and what would happen if Twitter crossed that line.)
Google Play’s policies, meanwhile, put clear prohibitions on sexual content, hate speech, bullying, and harassment. The Amazon Appstore has similar rules, warning that, in addition to bans on offensive content and pornography, apps should “always keep in mind that the Amazon Appstore is a family-friendly environment,” and Amazon also reserves the right to “reject any app at our discretion.” (Google and Amazon also didn’t reply to Fast Company‘s inquiries about what would happen if Twitter violated their app store terms of service.)
But history offers us some clues. After the January 6 attack on the Capitol building, Apple, Google, and Amazon all banned the conservative social-media platform Parler—which West is now in the process of buying. To be allowed back on, Parler had to agree to moderate content more aggressively and remove posts that incite violence. Beyond a slew of other hangups at launch, Donald Trump’s social app, Truth Social, was initially not permitted onto Google Play. Google argued the app violated the store’s terms of service because it lacked an effective content-moderation system.
Twitter has more robust moderation in place, or it did. But Phil Schiller, Apple’s App Store head honcho, just deactivated his Twitter account, which observers are not necessarily reading as a great sign. As Bloomberg’s reporter on the Apple beat, Mark Gurman, summed it up, “We appear to now know how Apple’s App Store chief feels about the new Twitter.”
At the same time, Apple stands to benefit immensely when Twitter imposes the new $8-a-month Twitter Blue subscriptions. Presumably, Apple would collect a 15% to 30% commission, the going rate for paid apps and in-app purchases.
Then again, few would accuse Apple of consistently enforcing its App Store policies across the board: Nearly a year ago, Tumblr made certain adult content inaccessible on its iOS app in order to remain in the App Store. But in 2013, when Twitter took over video-hosting service Vine (which went dormant in 2022, although Musk is reportedly trying to revive that, too), it was full of porn. The press at the time chronicled how this seemed like a blatant violation of App Store content policies. Vine remained intact, but it eventually did add a 17+ rating.