Seven years after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission declined to take any action, the Department of Justice is poised to undertake an antitrust investigation of Google parent Alphabet.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the Justice Department “is preparing to closely examine Google’s business practices related to its search and other businesses …”
In response to the story, TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer told Skift in a statement: “TripAdvisor remains concerned about Google’s practices in the U.S., the EU, and throughout the world. For the good of consumers and competition on the internet, we welcome any renewed interest by U.S. regulators into Google’s anticompetitive behavior.”
It’s unclear whether the antitrust investigation would cover Google’s travel practices, which have come under wide criticism from companies, including Expedia Group, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Trip.com, and among many others.
However, one source argued that local search, including hotels and businesses that feature user-generated content, would likely be part of any antitrust investigation of Google.
“Antitrust regulators copy one another’s notes,” the source said, “and the European Commission has an active investigation of Google’s local search practices.”
Google’s travel businesses have grown more comprehensive in recent years, and the company recently created a one-stop shopping platform for flights, hotels, alternative lodging, and vacation packages on desktop and mobile.
Over the years, Google has greatly diminished the ability of travel competitors to compete in organic search, and gives preference to its own travel advertising businesses over other companies’ offerings by placing the results from its own travel businesses high in search results, and relegating others’ to lower positions.
TripAdvisor’s Kaufer said in a statement in September 2018: “We see Google preferencing its own content to the detriment of consumers in travel and local search,” TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer said in a statement. “We’ve been consistent in our desire to help consumers have unfettered and equal access to the most relevant answers to their searches.”
Expedia Group chairman Barry Diller told CNBC in October 2018 that Google wields a monopoly in search and digital advertising, and should be regulated. “I would stop them from going into businesses that compete with their own advertisers,” Diller said.
Under the Obama administration, amid reports of heavy Google lobbying, the Federal Trade Commission looked into Google’s search practices but declined to take any action. The commission’s decision in 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, came despite the fact that key antitrust staffers wanted to sue after concluding that Google’s search and advertising practices harmed consumers and slowed innovation.
Beyond the way Google preferences its travel and other businesses, there has been momentum building for greater regulation of Google, Facebook, and Amazon for their varied advertising and data privacy practices.
Kaufer of TripAdvisor recently took Google to task in a tweet over its data and privacy practices.
“Google already knows too much about my browsing,” Kaufer tweeted. “Now they are remembering everything I buy on other sites/apps? Hey Google — STOP DOING THAT.”
Google already knows too much about my browsing. Now they are remembering everything I buy on other sites/apps? Hey Google — STOP DOING THAT. Full article: Google uses Gmail to track a history of things you buy — and it's hard to delete https://t.co/mDGDgjcc7Y
— stephen kaufer (@kaufer) May 20, 2019
Google Addresses Data Practices at Skift Forum Asia
In a panel at Skift Forum Asia on May 27 in Singapore, Richard Holden, Google Travel’s vice president of product management, addressed Kaufer’s tweet in response to a question about it.
“I would say we’ve always had the belief that control and transparency are key at Google and that’s the case in this instance too,” Holden said. “We thought of it as useful to provide users with their information regarding reservations, purchases, and the like, and being able to access that from one page that is private to them only.”
Holden added: “And if they find that information not useful to them, they can certainly delete that, they can certainly enable in the privacy controls within account settings they can disable that too. So it’s their unique data. It is not used for advertising in any fashion.”
Holden said he personally sees it as useful when Google accesses records of his purchases, “but some users like Steve may not find that useful and they can surely take control of that and turn it off.”
Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nod, has called for breaking up Big Tech, including severing Instagram and WhatsApp from Facebook, taking Waze away from Google, and reversing Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.
The scope of any Department of Justice antitrust probe of Google, if it actually begins, isn’t known. It isn’t certain whether it would cover Google’s travel practices or how criticism of Big Tech’s data practices may fit in.
The European Union has levied billions of dollars of fines against Google in recent years over its shopping and Android practices, but so far European authorities have not tackled travel.
Google declined to comment.