Elon Musk Wonders: Does the Company that Fought the FBI in Court to Prevent Giving it the Text Messages of Terrorists Hate Free Speech Because It Stopped Giving Me Money?

Apple's App Store monopoly is a problem. Where it spends its advertising money isn't.
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Image: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg

World’s richest man and caffeine-free Diet Coke enthusiast Elon Musk continues to publicly attack people and corporations who do not elect to give him money. Today’s target is Apple, who, he said, has “mostly stopped advertising on Twitter.” 

“Apple has mostly stopped advertising on Twitter,” Musk tweeted. “Do they hate free speech in America?” 

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There are many problems with Apple, and, eventually, Musk put his finger on the main one: Its App Store monopoly, and the possibility that Apple could remove Twitter from the App Store.

But it is worth mentioning that, with encryption on iMessage and on iPhones, Apple has taken a major, undeniable step to facilitate free speech. 

In 2014, Apple introduced encryption by default on iPhones, which has made it much more difficult for hackers, police, and governments to surveil users. The iPhone is also traditionally the most secure mobile platform. iMessage is also encrypted end-to-end. 

As many privacy experts, academics, and even the United Nations have repeatedly asserted, encryption is a human rights issue, and encryption is “essential” for free speech. 

“Encryption and anonymity, separately or together, create a zone of privacy to protect opinion and belief,” the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights wrote in a 2015 report. The argument here is that it is critically important to allow people to protect their speech and their files from authoritarian governments and police surveillance, and that, without an expectation of security and privacy, people will either face prosecution from those entities or will have to self-censor to avoid them. Privacy International has stated that "the right to privacy and freedom of expression are two sides of the same coin."

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Elon Musk’s argument, meanwhile, is that, when corporations do not give him money, they are not upholding the values of free speech. Musk has stated that Twitter—which, under previous leadership, was used in part to organize popular uprisings in the Middle East during the Arab Spring—should follow local laws against speech to avoid “risky” litigation in countries like India. Meanwhile, while people protest in China, Mandarin-language search terms related to the cities and protests have been overwhelmed with spam on Twitter.

Apple’s fight to normalize encryption was best crystallized in the Apple vs FBI court battle in 2016, when Apple fought against a legal order that would have compelled it to decrypt the phones of two terrorists who shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. Apple fought that legal battle for the greater part of 2016 on First Amendment (the speech one) and Fourth Amendment (the privacy one) grounds. 

While Apple deserves praise for its widespread adoption of encryption, its focus on security, and its willingness to fight court battles of this issue, its record is not perfect on free speech and privacy. Apple users in China, for example, have access to a separate App Store and Apple has complied with a Russian law that could enable censorship on iPhones. 

More importantly, Apple itself is also a major arbiter of speech on the App Store. 

What does have an impact on whether Twitter can operate is that last point. Apple has previously deplatformed apps like Parler after the January 6 attack; Musk followed up his tweet about advertising by saying that Apple has threatened to "withhold Twitter from the App Store but won't tell us why."  

All of this is messy, and Musk purposefully has not operated Twitter or tweeted from his own account with much nuance in recent weeks. As his former Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth pointed out in the New York Times, Apple is able to operate the App Store more or less with impunity, which is an actual free speech and expression concern.

This does not change the fact, however, that whether Apple (or any company, for that matter) advertises on Twitter or not has nothing to do with “hating free speech,” and that no company or entity is obligated to give the world's richest man money, an argument he has been repeatedly trying since taking over Twitter. It’s important to note that Musk’s argument is only half right—or only half worth engaging with at all; otherwise we risk letting him win the argument that anyone who does not buy advertising or a Twitter Blue account or personally invest in his own financial success is an enemy of free speech.