Executive Greg Blatt on the Conundrum of Free Speech and the Internet

Listen to this article

In many ways, the internet developed similarly to America’s Wild West – spontaneously, and unregulated. Just as we have romanticized the lawlessness and idealistic opportunity of the time through hundreds of thousands of dime novels and movies, we have come to perceive the internet as a uniquely free, decentralized, and democratic place through which one can find communities and diversify their view.

However, in reality, the Western frontier was a ruthless and challenging place, and the internet also cannot be so easily categorized as a pure force of free speech and democracy. Debates have grown fierce in recent years as to what should be regulated on the internet, how much regulation is necessary, and who is entitled (or expected) to do it.

“I think it’s just very much against the American character”, says Greg Blatt, an executive with over two decades of experience leading some of the country’s largest internet companies. “By that, I mean the essence of this country and what makes our system still unique is this incredible distrust of centralizing power. And I agree with that. I think regulating in the way that people talk about it is a concentration of power in the hands of people that I don’t know, and therefore I don’t trust.”

After beginning his career in corporate law, Blatt has held leadership positions for a number of American companies within the internet sector. At InterActivCorp (IAC), a holding company known for its early acquisition of some of the biggest internet companies of the 21st century including Ticketmaster, Expedia, Hotels.com, and the Home Shopping Network, as well as The Daily Beast, Vimeo, and other media ventures, Blatt served as general counsel, then CEO of its Match.com business, then as CEO of IAC itself. He later became CEO of IAC’s Match Group, which housed all its online dating assets, which he then took public. While serving as CEO of Match Group, he also served as CEO of Tinder, its fastest-growing subsidiary.

The ability to freely express yourself has long been considered one of the pillars of a functioning democracy, but exactly how to balance that with protecting others has troubled democratic theorists for hundreds of years. “On Liberty”, the seminal essay by the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill, argues that a distinction must be made between the freedom to speak and the freedom to act. He posited that spoken and written encouragement is not action and that there should be no barrier to the expression of opinions.

Continuing this train of thought, for Mill even lies that are offensive should be free to be expressed, because it is only in doing so that they can be exposed as fraudulent. While in other parts of the world such as Britain and France the law permits free speech unless the government legislates otherwise, The First Amendment in the American Constitution famously expressly prohibits laws limiting free speech.

Blatt points out that whether we like it or not, the First Amendment is a fact of American life and for that reason any considerations made in terms of free speech regulation must begin from the interpretation of that pillar. 

“I start there, which is not ‘what would I do if I were king’, but ‘what’s actually possible in this?’” said Blatt. “I have not yet seen a great solution to the problem. And when I don’t see great solutions to problems of free speech, I say let it be.”

In 2022, the market research company YouGov conducted a poll of 1,000 United States adult citizens to try and determine how Americans think the internet has affected free speech. It found that most of those surveyed agreed that the internet has made it easier for people to widely and anonymously share their views and that it also made it easier for large groups to collectively shame a person for their views. However, most also agreed that it has increased access to a diverse range of views, and about half agreed the internet makes it easier for people to share their views without consequences.

This survey only served to further highlight the conundrum of free speech and the internet: it is at once a powerful tool for spreading ideas and a dangerous open frontier. The COVID-19 pandemic provided an example of why these difficult questions must be approached proactively rather than reactively. Whether it be the government or corporations, confidence in institutions can be quickly lost if the wrong choices are made.

“I think businesses should moderate themselves, but I would be humble – as humble as I can – in terms of imposing my judgments on top of the crowds, because I do think we’ve lost trust.  At the same time, on social media platforms, the things people say are part of the product, and it seems to me that you have to be able to exercise control over the product you’re offering the public.”

The YouGov poll supports Blatt’s postulation, with 59 percent of those surveyed indicating they believed free speech does not mean that social media platforms are obligated to amplify or widely distribute every person’s views. 

When it comes to online dating platforms, Blatt said that the transactional nature of the apps makes it less subject to the hard questions social media platforms face. The communication is more direct and issues are typically related to profanity or propositioning which come down more to community guidelines.

“I’m a big fan of decorum, and I think that more policing there is better,” said Blatt. “The speech you’re moderating is not political or in the public interest, and it’s not even public, it’s generally private speech between two people on the platform.  So it’s complicated for a number of reasons, but not really for free speech reasons. And frankly, putting aside altruism, it’s just bad for business. It’s just not good for the bottom line. So, things do align there.”

While much of the problems with free speech and the internet have become intertwined with other societal issues such as politics, the First Amendment ultimately takes precedent. Blatt calls back to the old adage that “the best form of government is a benevolent monarchy, but it’s very hard to count on the fact that your monarch will be benevolent.”

“That’s the foundation of our whole system. Everywhere, that is the foundation of our system. That is the essence of America.  We would rather put up with certain problems than allow too much concentration of power in the hands of people who would otherwise address those problems.  It’s the price of our freedom. I don’t really know how to regulate speech without someone I don’t know making important decisions for me about what I can say and what I can hear, and I, and generally speaking we, don’t trust them to make those decisions for us,” said Blatt.