WASHINGTON: Google Inc won government clearance with restrictions for its US$700mil (RM2.24bil) purchase of airline fare tracker ITA Software in a deal that will give the Internet search giant a key role in online travel.
Google promises to give consumers more choices and better ways to search for plane tickets as it incorporates ITA technology, which powers the reservation systems of most major US airlines and many popular online fare-comparison services, including Kayak, TripAdvisor and Hotwire.
The company had to accept significant conditions, though, in a sign that federal antitrust officials are becoming more concerned about whether Google’s enormous clout as a major gateway to the Internet has the potential to stifle competition broadly online.
As Google expands far beyond its core search business into specialised markets such as travel, companies operating in all corners of the Web — and government regulators as far away as Europe — are taking notice.
Rivals and regulators alike are worried that Google could use its control over the Internet’s dominant search engine to extend its monopoly into travel and other markets by steering users to its own sites and services and burying links to rivals far down in its search results.
Indeed, Google’s search results already highlight some of its own specialised services, including mapping, video and finance.
Although Justice Department officials did not tackle that danger outright, they laid the groundwork for a potential government investigation into manipulation of Internet search results. Google agreed to ongoing federal monitoring of its behaviour to win government approval.
“They clearly decided that they want to keep an eye on Google,” said Thomas Barnett, an attorney who represents Expedia Inc, which opposed the ITA deal in a coalition with other online travel services including Microsoft Corp’s Bing, Travelocity, Kayak Software Corp and Farelogix Inc. Expedia owns TripAdvisor and Hotwire services.
“The ability to use search dominance to exclude competitors is not unique to travel,” added Barnett, who was head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division when it threatened a lawsuit to block Google from entering into a search partnership with Yahoo! Inc in 2008.
The agreement with the Justice Department comes at a time of mounting government scrutiny of Google’s behaviour in Washington and beyond.
The European Commission and the Texas attorney-general are looking into whether Google manipulates search results to extend its monopoly into other online businesses.
The European investigation started after competitors — Britain-based price comparison site Foundem, French legal search engine ejustice.fr and Microsoft-owned shopping site Ciao — complained that their services were being buried in Google searches.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee also is investigating whether Google gives its services favourable treatment in search results.
In addition, a federal judge last month rejected a proposed legal settlement that would have given Google the digital rights to millions of out-of-print books after determining that the agreement would have violated US copyright laws and given Google’s already-dominant search engine an unfair advantage over its rivals.
The settlement requires Google to adopt a comprehensive privacy programme and submit to independent audits of that programme every other year for the next 20 years.
Eric Goldman, academic director of the High Tech Law Institute at the Santa Clara University School of Law in Silicon Valley, said the agreements with Justice and the FTC “collectively indicate that the US Government has more and more hooks into Google and is subjecting Google to greater oversight and reduced operational freedom.”
Dropping a hint
Nonetheless, Friday’s approval by the Justice Department makes ITA the latest major deal that Google has managed to clear with Washington.
Other big purchases include the 2007 acquisition of Internet advertising network DoubleClick and last year’s purchase of mobile ad service AdMob, both of which were approved by the FTC without any conditions.
Google has said it wants to use ITA to improve its search results for travel and doesn’t plan to sell airline tickets or book other travel arrangements on its own site.
Rather, ITA would enable the company to command higher ad rates from airlines, hotels, rental car agencies and other leisure services trying to reach travellers.
Google offered a hint about what could be coming in a blog post on Friday. It suggested that by simply typing in “flights to somewhere sunny for under $500 in May” into Google, a user would get not just a set of links but also flight times, fares and a link to sites for buying the trip.
To win Justice Department clearance, Google agreed to license ITA’s software to other companies on fair terms through 2016.
And it will continue to invest in research and development of new products, which it would also have to license.
It’s for users
Google had previously promised only to honour all of ITA’s current contracts, which expire over the next few years, leaving ITA customers to worry that Google would keep its innovations for itself. Under the terms of the approval, any disputes would be subject to binding arbitration.
Google also agreed to establish a separation between ITA and other Google operations to ensure that it cannot misuse proprietary customer data or technology that resides on or runs through ITA servers.
But most significant, the government will monitor Google to ensure it does not engage in anticompetitive behaviour, which could include manipulation of search results.
The company will be subject to broad requirements to report to government officials on its online travel operations, including travel search and advertising.
In addition, the government will establish a forum for complaints about Google’s behaviour. This could eventually pave the way for a broader investigation of Google by either Justice or the FTC.
The coalition of online travel services that had expressed concerns about the ITA acquisition praised the government conditions, calling them a “significant step in the right direction.”
Still, the group added in a statement that although “consumers won this round, but we must remain vigilant” to ensure that Google does not abuse its search monopoly.
Google says it understands that it will face more government scrutiny as it grows bigger. But the company argues that most of the accusations of anticompetitive behaviour come not from users, who like its services, but from competitors that are not pleased with their search rankings.
And that, the company said, is not necessarily an antitrust problem. “We built Google for users, not websites,” it said in a statement. — AP