What is Google’s responsibility to its searchers? In a Thursday panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Jonathan Zittrain*, a professor of Internet law at Harvard law school, offered a hypothetical that captured why that question is so difficult to answer.

Before getting to that hypothetical, let’s assume that Google commits––whether formally or informally––to the notion that it has some responsibility to look out for its users. For example, if someone searches for the best way to drive from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, it will direct them to the fastest or safest route, not the route that takes them past an out-of-the-way fast food chain that paid off the search engine.

That’s an easy case: The best interests of the searcher is clear.

In contrast, Zittrain’s hypothetical raised larger questions about what it means to act in a searcher’s best interests. “Suppose Google is a fiduciary to us, they and Bing decide that they're going to look out for us. And I happen to believe that vaccines are probably bad,” he began. “And I Google ‘should I vaccinate my child?’”

“If Google is ‘looking out for me,’” he continued, “should they interpret that in the best way as, you've got to shake this person by the lapels, the way that I presume a doctor would?”

Or should a benevolent Google’s approach be, “We're looking out for you, we know what kinds of articles you're looking for, let us speed you to your destination?”  

Generally, he said, he has no ready answer. “But I think the reason we turn to experts, why they have power over us and why we want them to be fiduciaries, is to get the benefits of that expertise,” he added. “In that instance, we’d probably want to be told that the best state of medicine now is that you probably want to have that vaccine.”

So when should a search engine act like an expert? When should it direct searchers as neutrally as possible to the Web pages that they’re seeking? And to what degree should it consider the interests of people other than the person searching?

Here are some other hypothetical search terms:

  • Are humans causing climate change?
  • Is it okay to cheat on my spouse?
  • How to make a bomb with pressure cooker and nails;
  • Most painful way to spank child;
  • Is Google evil?
  • Leaked sex tape of [insert unwilling celebrity]
  • Most painless suicide method
  • What do I tell my incoming freshman daughter about campus rape?

As yet, I can’t think of a single method I’d want a search engine to apply to all of those search terms.

Can you?

*Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed these remarks to another speaker on the same panel.