Washington, D.C. – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) delivered the following remarks today at a hearing examining social media filtering practices and their effect on free speech.

Chairman Goodlatte: Today’s hearing will examine how social media companies filter content on their platforms. According to a February, 2018 fact sheet published by Pew Research Center, “Today around seven-in-ten Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.” In a survey released in March, Pew found that Facebook dominates the social media landscape with 68% of U.S. adults stating that they use this social media platform online or on their cellphone. This same survey found that nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults use YouTube, a platform with many social media elements, including 94% of 18- to 24-year-olds. Also covered in this survey was Twitter, which controls a smaller demographic, but nevertheless attracts 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds to its platform.

While it is clear that these numbers show that social media platforms have direct control over incredible volumes of user-created content, the method by which these companies manage this content is far from clear. Facebook, Google, and Twitter in many cases would like to appear as neutral channels. YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, for example, states that its purpose is “to give everyone a voice and show them the world.” But this goal and those of the others appear wildly aspirational, and do not reflect the true nature of the business that these for-profit companies engage in.

In reality, these companies, like all other legitimate businesses, are exercising great care and discretion to ensure that their services are not abused. For example, we know that they monitor content to ensure that no illegal activity such as fraud, piracy, identity theft, and sex trafficking, among others, is being committed on their platforms. This fact should not surprise us. Indeed, they are required to do so.

However, beyond illegal activity, as private actors, we know that these companies manage content on their platforms as they see fit. The First Amendment offers no clear protections for users when Facebook, Google, or Twitter limits their content in any way. Moreover, they maintain “terms of service” pages, which contain rules that users must agree to abide by in order to use their platforms. And at least in some cases, when content is identified as violating a company’s terms of service, it is subject to human review.

There is, however, a fine line between removing illegal activity and suppressing speech. And while these companies may have legal, economic, and ideological reasons to manage their content like a traditional media outlet, we must nevertheless weigh as a nation whether the standards they apply endanger our free and open society and its culture of freedom of expression, especially when it is through these channels that our youth are learning to interact with each other and the world.

Speaking before the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce in 1961, Ronald Reagan observed that, “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

In a 2017 communication to the Facebook community, CEO Mark Zuckerberg asked the following question: “are we building the world we all want?” That is the very question presiding over this hearing today. And while I am pleased to ask this question to our distinguished panel of witnesses appearing before us today, it is unfortunate that despite our repeated invitations, representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter have declined to testify. If this is any indication of their efforts to be more transparent, then we may already have our answer to Mr. Zuckerberg’s question.

With that, I want to thank all of our witnesses in attendance today. I look forward to your testimony.