Dec 1, 2022 - Technology

Musk reignites debate over Apple's power

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republican lawmakers and some Tech CEOs are rallying behind Elon Musk's public attacks on Apple, alleging its control over its App Store amounts to an abuse of power.

Why it matters: By wading into the Apple debate, Musk has reignited concerns about whether Apple's App Store policies — which include a 30% commission on most charges for apps or services within apps — put competitors at a disadvantage.

Details: In the wake of Musk's tweets on Monday that Apple allegedly threatened "to withhold Twitter from its App Store," several Republicans, including Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), Sen.-elect J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fl.), have attacked the tech giant over its policies.

  • "This is why we need to end the App Store duopoly before the end of this year. No one should have this kind of market power," Rep. Buck tweeted.
  • "Apple's alleged threat to remove Twitter from its App Store further proves we must rein in big tech," Sen. Blackburn tweeted.
  • Other lawmakers have been criticizing Apple over its conduct in China.

Industry players have also begun to weigh in following Musk's tweets.

  • On Wednesday, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek — a vocal critic of Apple's app store policies — quote-tweeted Sen. Blackburn's comments, writing, "As Apple continues to inflict harm, the momentum is real."
  • Later that day, at The New York Times' Dealbook conference, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, "I do think it's problematic that one company controls what happens on the device."

On Wednesday evening, Musk tweeted that he had a "good conversation" with Apple CEO Tim Cook and said that "we resolved the misunderstanding about Twitter potentially being removed from the App Store. Tim was clear that Apple never considered doing so."

  • Axios has not been able to independently confirm the meeting and Apple has not responded to requests for comment.

Be smart: These gripes aren't new — they've been the focus of a major lawsuit against Apple by Epic Games — but they're becoming louder.

  • Spotify, Meta and other tech giants spoke out last month against recent changes to Apple's app store policies.
  • Beginning in late 2020, Meta began waging an aggressive campaign against changes to Apple's policies governing app tracking of user behavior that, Meta said, were anti-competitive and damaging to small businesses.

The other side: Apple argues that its app tracking changes have bolstered users' privacy and that its 30% cut of app sales and in-app purchases helps fund its efforts to keep the iPhone customer experience safe.

State of play: Apple CEO Tim Cook has visits to Capitol Hill this week as the chorus against Apple began to grow.

  • Cook, who visits Washington regularly, is meeting with both Republicans and Democrats, per Bloomberg.
  • One of Cook's planned meetings is with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), per a source familiar. Schatz plans to press Cook about reports that Apple limited its AirDrop function in China before the protests related to covid lockdowns began.

Yes, but: The worst Apple faces from Congress is hearings that might embarrass it. The legislature has struggled and failed under Democratic control to pass any major restrictions on Big Tech firms or revisions to antitrust laws. Split control of Congress in the new year makes action even less likely.

The bottom line: For now, the complaints about Apple haven't seemed to make a dent in its reputation among consumers, but they're certainly creating headaches for the company in Washington.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Sen. Marsha Blackburn is from Tennessee, not Kentucky.

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