Travel firms worry about how Google is handling their data


Startups in Europe’s travel sector have levelled allegations of anti-competitive behaviour against Google. The search engine giant has a near complete grip on the search market in Europe, with a regional market share in excess of 90%, according to Statcounter.

Industry sources say a majority of travel bookings start as a Google search — giving the tech giant huge leverage over the coronavirus hit sector, TechCrunch has reported.

More than half a dozen travel startups in Germany are united in a shared complaint that Google is abusing its search dominance in a number of ways they argue are negatively impacting their businesses. Complaints we’ve heard from multiple sources in online travel range from Google forcing its own data standards on ad partners to Google unfairly extracting partner data to power its own competing products, TechCrunch has said.

Last month’s congressional antitrust subcommittee hearing in the US kicked off with chair David Cicilline shouting at Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai: “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” Pichai dodged the question by claiming he doesn’t agree with the characterization. But for Google and parent Alphabet there’s no dodging the antitrust drumbeat pounding violently in the company’s backyard, said the TechCrunch report.

In Europe, Google’s business already has a clutch of antitrust enforcements against it — starting three years ago, in a case which dated back six years at that point, with a record-breaking penalty for anti-competitive behaviour in how it operated a product search service called Google Shopping. EU enforcements against Android and Adsense swiftly followed, the TechCrunch report said. Google is appealing all three decisions, even as it continues to expand its operations in lucrative verticals like travel.

But so far, on travel, the Commission has been keeping its powder dry. Yet for around a decade the tech giant has been building out products that directly compete for travel bookings in growth areas like flight search. More recently it’s added hotels, vacation rentals and experiences — bringing its search tool into direct competition with an increasing range of third-party booking platforms which, at least in Europe, have no choice but to advertise on Google’s platform to drive customer acquisition, TechCrunch said.

One key acquisition underpinning Google’s travel ambitions dates back to 2010 — when it shelled out $700 million for ITA, a provider of flight information to airlines, travel agencies and online reservation systems. The same year it also picked up the travel guide community, Ruba. Google also beat out a consortium of rivals for ITA, including Microsoft, Kayak, Expedia and Travelport, which relied on its data to power their own travel products — and had wanted to prevent Google getting its hands on the data, the TechCrunch report said.

Back then travel was already a huge segment of search and online commerce. And it’s continued to grow — worth close to $700 billion globally in 2018, per eMarketer, giving Google a huge incentive to carve itself a bigger and bigger share of the pie. This is what Google is aiming to do by building out ad units that cater to travellers’ searches by offering flights, vacation rentals and trip experiences, searchable without needing to leave Google’s platform, the TechCrunch report said.

Google defends this type of expansion by saying it’s just making life easier for the user by putting sought for information even closer to their search query. But competitors contend the choices it’s making are far more insidious. Simply put, they’re better for Google’s bottom line — and will ultimately result in less choice and innovation for consumers — is the core argument. The key contention is Google is able to do this because it wields vast monopoly power in search, which gives it unfair access to travel rivals’ content and data, the TechCrunch report added.