Apple’s free speech problem has nothing to do with Twitter or Elon Musk
All the news, rumors, and tips you missed this week.
By David Price, Editor, MacworldDEC 3, 2022 5:30 am PST
Welcome to our weekend Apple Breakfast column, which includes all of the Apple news you missed this week in a handy bite-sized roundup. We call it Apple Breakfast because we think it goes great with a morning cup of coffee or tea, but it’s cool if you want to give it a read during lunch or dinner hours too.
The price of free speech
I’ve been doing my best—and not always succeeding—to avoid writing about Elon Musk and Twitter 2.0. Part of the problem is that the “Chief Twit” so transparently wants to be the center of the conversation that even criticism of his behavior ends up playing into his hands. The best way of dealing with an attention-seeking child, in my experience, is to ignore them.
It’s difficult, however, for a website to ignore a man who publicly declares war on the company you write about. This week Musk has taken umbrage with Apple for censoring apps, taking a “secret” 30 percent cut of app revenue, and threatening to remove Twitter from the App Store (he later admitted that one was wrong). Most bizarrely, he claimed the company had reduced its ad spend on Twitter and wondered if it, therefore, “hate(s) free speech in America.”
There’s a fair bit of nonsense here. You can’t argue that Apple hates free speech because it declined to spend a sufficiently astronomical sum of money placing adverts next to white supremacists. That has nothing to do with free speech—it’s a business decision. (Incidentally, it might not have even been true, according to ad analytics.)
Furthermore, and despite apparent assurances that this won’t happen, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for Apple to remove Twitter from the App Store. Parler got booted for failing to offer rigorous content moderation and was only allowed back after it promised to do better. Fortnite was booted for trying to bypass App Store revenue cuts, and Musk reportedly wants to do the same thing for Twitter Blue subscriptions. In any case, Apple is allowed to kick people off its platform, just as Musk is free to peevishly cancel a critical blogger’s Tesla order. I sincerely doubt he believes that businesses should be obliged to work with people they don’t like.
Amongst the wrongness, however, there’s some fair criticism. The revenue cut, for example, certainly isn’t a secret, but it may be excessive and is arguably enforced by monopolistic behavior. Apple’s militantly wholesome approach to app censorship is weird and frustrating. (The company arbitrarily holds apps to a different moral standard than other forms of media. “If you want to criticize a religion,” the App Store guidelines famously stated, “write a book.”) And it has plenty of other blind spots when it comes to free speech.
Perhaps the most troubling example of this could be observed last month. Protesters in China had been communicating using AirDrop, but Apple obligingly added a restriction (in that country only) on sharing files with strangers, a decision believed to have been made in response to pressure from the state. Needless to say, Apple didn’t highlight this change in the iOS 16.1.1 release notes, nor did it comment on the matter publicly.
But this isn’t the first time Apple has helped the Chinese state to restrict free speech. The company has removed numerous apps from the App Store in China, including VPNs, RSS readers, the New York Times, podcast players, and apps related to the Dalai Lama. If there’s one thing Apple does without a fight, it’s bending over backward to limit the speech of citizens to accommodate the wishes of a repressive state.
That’s before we even get to Apple’s own employees, who as recently as last year were facing restrictions on their ability to discuss pay with colleagues. In Cupertino, censorship begins at home.
The mistake, perhaps, is to regard these decisions as political–which Musk would like them to be, because that helps him to paint Apple as a Marxist commune of woke snowflakes. But that’s exactly the opposite of the truth. Apple’s position on free speech is purely capitalist. It purges apps in China because China is an important market to see iPhones. It advertises on Twitter because that’s historically been a good place to reach customers and burnish its brand, and it will stop doing so when that’s no longer the case. These are cold business decisions. Musk thinks Apple is too political, but when it comes to free speech, I don’t think it’s political enough.
Anyway, hopefully, I never need to write about Elon Musk again, particularly as he and Tim Cook are apparently best mates now. After reading his Twitter feed I feel like I need a shower. Let us never speak of this again. Unless you insist… after all, I don’t want anyone to think I hate free speech in America.
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And with that, we’re done for this week. If you’d like to get regular roundups, sign up for our newsletters. You can also follow us on Twitter for breaking news stories. See you next Saturday, enjoy the rest of your weekend, and stay Appley.