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?”