Friday, May 7, 2021

Did Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney get trolled from Apple Park during App Store antitrust trial? Suspicious Twitter activity detected.

As I announced last Saturday, I'm not going to comment publicly on App Store antitrust matters during the ongoing Epic Games v. Apple trial (also, see my "final pretrial Twitter thread"). I'm not like those New Year's resolutioners starting to smoke again a week later. This post is not about the trial itself or the antitrust matters involved, but about suspicious social media activity of the astroturfing kind.

It's publicly discoverable that Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney and I follow each other on Twitter, and sometimes retweet or like each other's tweets. Other than that, I don't know him and I'm 100% independent from Epic. I have my own app store issues.

In recent weeks there's been quite some suspicious activity on Twitter. I was not the only one to notice various recently-created or mostly inactive Twitter accounts (no or few followers, hardly any tweets) that chimed in on App Store antitrust discussions with typical Apple talking points. To be clear, there are legit "fanbois" and there may also be cases in which, for example, an open standards fanatic ignores web app shortcomings (like Richard Stallman's attitude that Free Software may lack functionality or perform suboptimally as long as it's ideologically correct). But when there are accounts coming out of nowhere with talking points that independent software makers would never ever agree with, there's an obvious explanation for that phenomenon. It doesn't necessarily mean coordination, nor is it likely to be organic.

Last afternoon by Pacific Time, something happened on Twitter that raises the question of whether Apple sets up some people--including "real" (even verified) accounts--to undermine Epic's credibility. Here's a screenshot (click on the image to enlarge; further commentary below):

The photo, taken from the lawn inside Apple Park, was posted at 4:55 PM Pacific Time, and the color of the sky as well as the length of the shadows cast by the trees suggest that the picture had been taken at just about that time of day. The previous tweet ("Shot, chaser.") had gone out only about an hour earlier, and juxtaposted two documents. The one on the left is a Tim Sweeney email from the trial record, talking about the problem of competitors placing ads above the organic search results when potential customers search for a particular product. The image on the right shows a tweet by an Epic competitor highlighting that Fortnite Battle Royale appeared above the organic Google search results for "Apex Legends."

The Apex Legends tweet was a reply to a tweet by journalist Tom Warren, who showed Tim Sweeney's email complaining about the keyword search issue.

This accusation of hypocrisy is not even new. Last August it already came up on Twitter, and Tim Sweeney's reply included the saying: "Don't hate the players, hate the game."

This Twitter user, Sebastiaan de With, is one of of the makers of Halide, an iPhone camera app. In a Medium blog post, he mentions that he is "an ex-Apple designer and photographer."

I can't help but suspect that he did that tweet to do Apple a favor, and there is a possibility that he tweeted against Epic while he was visiting Apple Park. At a minimum, he's tight with Apple.

What he intended to be a "gotcha" at Epic's expense now calls into question his Apple friends' social media strategy during the ongoing trial.

Given his focus, his career, and his acquaintances, how likely is it that he just happened to tweet about that keyword search issue and shortly thereafter posted a photo from inside Apple Park, compared to the possibility of Apple employees having asked him for it? You be the judge...

Mr. de With's co-founder is also in the Twitter tank for Apple in App Store antitrust terms. There's a pattern.

I normally don't highlight such observations and always try to be fair. It's a fact that I've been accused of being an Apple shill. People whom I suspected to be Qualcomm employees even created a "Mlorian Fueller" parody account with an Apple logo as a picture during the 2019 FTC v. Qualcomm trial, and alleged that all of my opinions were paid for by Apple, though I was actually taking positions that the court heard from pretty much every device or chipset maker who testified at that trial.

While we're on the subject of credibility, the only organization at the moment that definitely represents developer interests is the Coalition for App Fairness. I'm not a member, I have no relationship whatsoever with them, but based on what they say and looking at who's involved, there can--at least at this stage--be no doubt about the CAF's legitimacy. Unfortunately, there are a couple of other organizations pretending to represent app developers, but in reality they're lobbying fronts for large corporations:

  • ACT | The App Association says it "enjoys the support of top companies in the mobile economy." The first logo that webpage shows (near the bottom of the page I linked to) is Apple's. Fortunately, Microsoft is also involved, so I hope ACT won't be able to file amicus curiae briefs in support of Apple against Epic.

  • The Developers Alliance (previously known as "Application Developers Alliance") is effectively a Google front. Many years ago, I liked some of the positions they took. But now that it's about app store terms and policies, they're clearly an anti-developer organization. They support Google all the way, for what I know are largely funded by Google, and in the EU they even lobby against provisions in the Digital Markets Act that would benefit developers.

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