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Local travel firm takes on Google

TripAdvisor urges Europeans to rein in search giant further


TripAdvisor LLC in Newton, one of the nation’s leading Internet travel sites, has emerged as a key player in the antitrust complaint the European Commission brought against the online search titan Google Inc.

Last week, European regulators accused Google of abusing its dominant market share in Internet search by displaying results from its Google Shopping retail site ahead of similar results from competing online retailers. Because most Internet users click on links at the top of the first page of search results, the commission claimed that this practice unfairly weakens Google’s competitors and harms European consumers.


The commission began its investigation in 2010, spurred by claims by several small European companies that Google was competing unfairly. But several big American companies joined the fray, including Microsoft Corp., the product review site Yelp.com, and TripAdvisor, which filed a complaint in 2012.

While the commission’s complaint deals only with Google’s shopping service, TripAdvisor and another major travel site, Expedia, say that Google uses the same tactics to promote its online travel service, Google Flights. The European regulators noted they are continuing to investigate Google’s other business practices, including whether it is forcing users of its Android operating system to install other Google software on their cellphones.

TripAdvisor officials declined to speak with the Globe but released a statement from chief executive Stephen Kaufer.

“Google engages in preferencing and manipulates search results so that consumers see content that benefits Google, not the best content for consumers,” Kaufer said. “This practice harms consumers and competition, and must be ended.”

In a posting on its corporate blog, Google senior vice president Amit Singhal denied any wrongdoing. Singhal noted that while TripAdvisor said it has been harmed by Google’s tactics, it also “claims to be the Web’s largest travel brand and has nearly doubled its revenues in the last four years.”


Matthew J. Reilly, the former assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition, said TripAdvisor’s success doesn’t prove Google has done nothing wrong.

“The fact that they’ve been able to overcome Google’s preferring and favoring their own websites and properties does not mean that it’s not anticompetitive conduct,” Reilly said. “How much traffic would they have if Google did not prefer their own content?”

The European case could drag on for years, but Reilly said the mere fact of its filing might provide some relief to TripAdvisor and other Google competitors. “Most companies under investigation typically modify and chill their behavior,” he said.

The European Commission has previously brought another US tech giant to heel. Over the past decade, Microsoft Corp. agreed to pay a total of $2.3 billion in fines to settle numerous allegations that it engaged in anticompetitive practices, including favoring its own Web browser and media player over those of rivals.

Microsoft had a earlier antitrust battle with the Department of Justice that resulted in a 10-year consent decree in 2001 that placed significant restrictions on its business practices.

Michael Cusumano, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “Strategy Rules,” a book on management practices at Microsoft, Apple Inc., and the chip maker Intel Corp., said that Microsoft lost its competitive edge after its bout with the Justice Department.

The European Commission’s decision to go after Google has raised new questions about the US Federal Trade Commission’s 2012 decision to drop its own investigation of the giant company. In March, an accidental leak of FTC documents revealed that the agency’s legal staff had determined that Google’s business practices resulted “in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets.”


But the FTC’s five commissioners voted unanimously not to bring a case after Google voluntarily agreed to modify some of its business practices.

The decision still irks Reilly, who was an FTC attorney at the time. “I’m really disappointed in that decision. I think they had the evidence to support and win a case in litigation,” said Reilly, now a partner at the law firm Simpson Thacher in Washington, D.C.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.