Correcting Herb Kohl (and Kayak and Bing Travel . . .) on Google/ITA

Geoffrey Manne —  2 December 2010

Today comes news that Senator Kohl has sent a letter to the DOJ urging “careful review” of the proposed Google/ITA merger.  Underlying his concerns (or rather the “concerns raised by a number of industry participants and consumer advocates that I believe warrant careful review”) is this:

Many of ITA’s customers believe that access to ITA’s technology is critical to competition in online air travel search because it cannot be matched by other players in the travel search industry.  They claim that ITA’s superior access to information and superior technology enables it to provide faster and better results to consumers.  As a result, some of these industry participants and independent experts fear that the current high level of competition among online travel agents and metasearch providers could be undermined if Google were to acquire ITA and start its own OTA or metasearch service.  If this were to happen, they argue, consumers would lose the benefits of a robustly competitive online air travel market.

For several reasons, these complaints are without merit and a challenge to the Google/ITA merger would be premature at best—and a costly mistake at worst.

The high-tech market is innovative and dynamic. Goods and services that were once inconceivable are now indispensable, and competition has improved the quality of technology while driving down its costs. But as the market continues to change, antitrust interventions are stuck using a static regulatory framework. As the government develops a strategy for regulating competition in the digital marketplace, it must tread carefully—excessive intervention will stifle innovation, harm consumers, and prevent growth.  And given the link between innovation and economic growth, the stakes of “getting it right” are high. The individual nature of every decision, however, makes errors in antitrust enforcement inevitable. Some conduct that is bad for competition will be allowed to go on while some conduct that is good for competition will be blocked by intervention.

But prosecuting pro-competitive conduct is almost certainly more costly than mistakenly allowing anticompetitive conduct because mechanisms are in place to mitigate the latter but not the former. The cost of erroneous intervention is the loss to consumers directly and a deterrent effect on innovation—for fear of intervention, companies may not take large risks. Meanwhile, allowing conduct to persist amidst uncertainty allows the potential benefits of conduct to materialize while maintaining checks against practices that are bad for consumers: both the competitive marketplace and future enforcers have the power to mitigate specific anticompetitive outcomes that may arise. Unfortunately, current antitrust enforcement—abetted by influential congressmen like Senator Kohl—is more, rather than less, aggressive against innovative companies in high-tech industries. This aggression threatens to stifle growth and deter future innovation in a market with incredible potential.

Google has become a primary target of this scrutiny, and the company’s proposed acquisition of ITA, a software company that compiles and processes travel data, is a good example of aggressive scrutiny threatening to stifle growth.

Google’s acquisition of ITA is a straightforward merger where one company has decided to purchase another outright (instead of merely purchasing its services through contract). There are good reasons for integration. Most notably, Google gets to exercise direct control over ITA’s talented engineers if it owns ITA—influence that it would not have if the company simply signed a contract with ITA. If Google is correct that it can manage ITA’s resources better than ITA’s current management, then integration makes sense and is valuable for consumers.

The primary concern raised over Google’s proposed acquisition of ITA is that acquisition would “leverage” Google’s alleged dominance into another market—the online travel search market—and permit Google to prevent its competitors from accessing ITA’s high-quality analysis of flights and fares.

There are a few problems with this.

  • First, ITA does not provide or own the underlying data (this comes from the airlines themselves); rather it works only to analyze and process it—processing that other companies can and do undertake.  It may have developed superior technology to engage in this processing, but that is precisely why it (and consumers) should not be penalized by its competitors’ efforts to hamstring it.  Remember—although most of the hand-wringing surrounding this deal concerns Google, it is first and foremost the innovative entrepreneurs at ITA who would be prevented from capitalizing on their success if the deal is stopped.
  • Second, it is hard to see why, under the facts as alleged by the deal’s naysayers, consumers would be worse off if Google owns ITA than if ITA stands on its own.  The claims seem to turn on ITA’s indispensability to the online travel industry.  But if ITA is so indispensable—if it possesses such market power, in other words—it’s hard to see how its incentives to capitalize on that market power would change simply by virtue of a change in its management.  Either ITA possesses market power and is already taking advantage of it (or else its managers are leaving money on the table and it most certainly should be taken over by another set of managers) or else it does not actually possess this market power and its combination with Google, even if Google were to keep all of ITA’s technology for itself, will do little to harm the rest of the industry as its competitors step up and step in to take its place.
  • Third and related to these is the simple repugnance of hamstringing successful entrepreneurs because of the exhortations of their competitors, and the implication that a successful company’s work product (like ITA’s “superior technology”) must be rendered widely-available, by government force if necessary.
  • Meanwhile, Google does not seem to have any interest in selling airline tickets or making airline reservations (just as it doesn’t sell the retail goods one can search for using its site). Instead, its interest is in providing its users easy access to airline flight and pricing data and giving online travel agencies the ability to bid on the sale of tickets to Google users looking to buy. The availability of this information via Google search will lower search costs for consumers and the expected bidding should increase competition and drive down travel costs for consumers.  It is easy to see why companies like Kayak and Bing Travel and Expedia and Travelocity might be unhappy about this, but far more difficult to see how their woes should be a problem for the antitrust enforcers (or Congress, for that matter).

The point is not that we know that Google—or any other high-tech company’s—conduct is pro-competitive, but rather that the very uncertainty surrounding it counsels caution, not aggression. As the technology, usage and market structure change, so do the strategies of the various businesses that build up around them. These new strategies present unknown and unprecedented challenges to regulators, and these new challenges call for a deferential approach. New conduct is not necessarily anticompetitive conduct, and if our antitrust regulation does not accept this, we all lose.

Geoffrey Manne

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