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HomeToGo files antitrust complaint against Google

Germany: Vacation rental search engine HomeToGo, like other local travel startups including experience booking platform GetYourGuide, has filed an antitrust complaint against Google, accusing it of stealing content and data, according to a report in German newspaper Handelsblatt.

According to the newspaper’s report, the group of more than half a dozen startups is mulling filing a cartel complaint against the multinational technology giant over accusations that Google is abusing its search dominance by asserting its data standards on advertising partners, extracting their data and using it to promote its own products at a cheaper rate. To achieve this, it forces its partners to sign non-disclosure agreements [NDAs] to access their products and data.

The CEOs of Google, its parent company Alphabet, and a number of the largest tech platforms such as Apple, Facebook and Amazon, were recently grilled at an historic antitrust hearing at the US Congress from members of the House Antitrust Subcommittee over suggestions that the companies are becoming too dominant in their segments and driving any competitors away from the market.

This was seen recently when Apple reportedly threatened to drop Airbnb and live on-demand workout platform ClassPass from its App Store if they did not comply with the company’s demands to receive 30 per cent of any sales generated by their virtual experiences and classes now being offered due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, himself was interrogated by the Subcommittee, including one question where he was asked: “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses.”

Pichai responded by saying that Google was facing stiff competition in travel, despite the fact that its regional market share in Europe is over 90 per cent according to web traffic analysis website Statcounter, and that it has gradually built out its offering over the last decade to include searches for flights, hotels, experiences and now vacation rentals, as it looks to become a one-stop shop for prospective travellers.

Its competitors, among them many detractors, argue that Google’s behaviour verges into anti-competitiveness and monopolising the marketplace, so much so that third-party booking platforms are feeling obliged to advertise on their rival’s platform to drive customers to their sites.

Google’s services including Google Shopping, Android and AdSense have all faced previous or ongoing antitrust enforcements, making it the target of criticism from the likes of HomeToGo and GetYourGuide, and rivals such as Microsoft, Expedia, Kayak and Travelport who wanted to block Google from accessing the data they used to create and operate their own products. The platform was also slapped with unprecedented penalties for its search comparison service at the same time three years ago.

Dr Patrick Andrae, CEO and co-founder of HomeToGo, told TechCrunch that his company had filed the complaint to the European Commission in a bid to reduce Google’s “monopoly” on search results for vacation rentals and stranglehold on all major travel verticals with which it sees traction,

He said: “Due to the monopoly Google has in horizontal search, just by having this kind of access [to the vast majority of European Internet searchers], they’re so top of the funnel that they theoretically can go into any vertical. And with the power of their monopoly they can turn on products there without doing any prior investment in it.

“Anyone else has to work a lot on SEO strategies and these kind of things to slowly go up in the ranking but Google can just snap its fingers and say, basically, tomorrow I want to have a product.”

Similarly, travel startup GetYourGuide, also based in Berlin, had reservations over Google’s branching out into tours and experiences, with CEO and co-founder, Johannes Reck, telling TechCrunch that the tech giant was “trying to get content and our data in order to create new competitive products on Google”.

While Google defended its expansion into new verticals as helping customers to search for all their information in one place and refine their searches very specifically to find their ideal services, it is unlikely to be the last time it will be the subject of an antitrust complaint.

This is even more relevant when one considers the fallout of the Covid-19 crisis, which has already put paid to many tech startups around the world, as Google et al seek to capitalise on demand for travel bookings and push on for clear dominance across the verticals.