April 18, 2024

Executive Greg Blatt on the conundrum of free speech and the Internet

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In many ways, the Internet developed similar to the American Wild West: spontaneously and without regulation. Just as we have romanticized the anarchy and idealistic opportunities of the age through hundreds of thousands of novels and low-cost movies, we have come to perceive the Internet as an exceptionally free, decentralized, and democratic place through which one can find communities and Diversify your vision. .

In reality, however, the western frontier was a ruthless and challenging place, and the Internet also cannot be so easily classified as a pure force of free speech and democracy. In recent years, debates have intensified about what should be regulated on the Internet, how much regulation is necessary, and who has the right (or is expected to do so).

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

After beginning his career in corporate law, Blatt held leadership positions at several US 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 Home Shopping Network, as well as The Daily Beast, Vimeo, and other companies in media, Blatt served as general counsel, then CEO of its Match.com business, and then CEO of IAC itself. He later became CEO of IAC’s Match Group, which housed all of his online dating assets, which he later took public. While serving as CEO of Match Group, he also served as CEO of Tinder, its fastest-growing subsidiary.

The ability to express yourself freely has long been considered one of the pillars of a functioning democracy, but how exactly to balance that with the protection of others has worried democratic theorists for hundreds of years. “On Liberty,” the seminal essay by 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 barriers to the expression of opinions.

Continuing with this line of thinking, for Mill even lies that are offensive should be able to be expressed freely, because only by doing so can they be exposed as fraudulent. While in other parts of the world, such as Great Britain and France, the law allows free speech unless the government legislates otherwise, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expressly prohibits laws that limit 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 consideration made in terms of regulating freedom of expression must start from the interpretation of that pillar.

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

In 2022, market research company YouGov conducted a survey of 1,000 adult American citizens to try to determine how Americans believe the Internet has affected free speech. It found that most respondents agreed that the Internet has made it easier for people to share their views widely and anonymously and that it has also made it easier for large groups to collectively shame a person for their views. However, most also agreed that access to a wide range of views has increased, and about half agreed that 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 both a powerful tool for spreading ideas and a dangerous open border. The COVID-19 pandemic provided an example of why these difficult questions must be addressed proactively and not reactively. Whether government or corporations, trust in institutions can be quickly lost if wrong decisions are made.

“I think companies should restrain themselves, but I would be humble – as humble as I can – when imposing my judgments on the crowd, because I think we have lost trust. At the same time, on social media platforms, what people say is part of the product and it seems to me that you have to be able to exercise control over the product that is offered to the public.”

The YouGov poll supports Blatt’s claim, with 59 percent of respondents indicating they believed freedom of speech does not mean social media platforms are required to amplify or widely distribute each person’s opinions.

When it comes to online dating platforms, Blatt said the transactional nature of the apps makes them less subject to the difficult questions that social media platforms face. Communication is more direct and problems are usually related to bad words or propositions that are more reduced to community guidelines.

“I’m a big fan of decorum and I think more policing is better,” Blatt said. “The speech you are moderating is not political or public interest, and it is not even public, it is usually 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, altruism aside, it’s just bad for business. It’s just not good for the bottom line. So, things line up there.”

While many of the problems with free speech and the Internet have become intertwined with other social issues such as politics, the First Amendment ultimately has precedent. Blatt recalls the old saying that “the best form of government is a benevolent monarchy, but it is very difficult to count on the fact that your monarch will be benevolent.”

“That is the basis of our entire system. Everywhere, that is the basis of our system. That is the essence of America. We would rather tolerate certain problems than allow too much concentration of power in the hands of people who would otherwise deal with those problems. It is 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 we, don’t trust them to make those decisions. for us,” Blatt said.

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