Google Limits Access to Airfare Data, Risking Antitrust Concerns
In 2010, when Google paid $700 million to acquire airline-data company ITA Software, the Department of Justice scrutinized the deal for antitrust issues. The deal was ultimately approved, but one condition of the approval required Google to allow others to access the data for five years.
Now, seven years later, Google is cutting off access to ITA data for some companies that rely on it. This week Google announced it would cancel QPX Express, an airline-data service it has offered to small businesses and startups since 2014. The news immediately prompted criticism from entrepreneurs and antitrust watchdogs, who see it as further proof of Google parent company Alphabet’s outsized power.
Ending QPX Express does not mean Google has cut off all access to ITA’s data. ITA will continue to work with large customers. A Google representative told Bloomberg it canceled the small-business offering because of “low interest.” A Google representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Even though this week’s move will affect only a small portion of the online travel market, it didn’t stop the online outrage machine from criticizing Google as monopolistic and anticompetitive. On Hacker News, a message board frequented by people at startups, founders bemoaned the lack of an affordable, reliable data feed and the perils of relying on a tech giant to do business. On Twitter, commentators scolded the sudden damage to travel startups.
The reaction shows a growing eagerness in some circles to restrain the country’s powerful tech behemoths, tagged by some as the Frightful Five (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft). In July, the European Union ordered Google to pay $2.7 billion in fines for anti-competitive behaviors. Stateside, Google’s general counsel testified in front of Congress this week on the role its content-distribution services played in Russian meddling in the US election. The meddling has revealed exactly how powerful companies like Google have become, which has intensified cries for stronger antitrust measures.
Meanwhile, Google has not been shy about its ambitions to win in online travel booking. The acquisition of ITA allowed Google to beef up its travel-related search results in an attempt to persuade travelers to book directly from the results, without going to online travel sites such as Expedia or Orbitz.
The rise of mobile has proven tricky for the company: On smartphones, travelers may be more likely to book their hotels and flights through dedicated apps like Booking.com or Hipmunk rather than start with a Google search in a web browser. Booking apps that cut Google out could hurt an important source of search revenue for the company. Travel site Skift estimated that the travel category contributed $11.2 billion to Google’s $90 billion in 2016 revenue.