Google under fire for proposed changes to search in Europe

Travel companies and industry bodies feel proposed changes from Google to comply with its gatekeeper status within Europe’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) may not go far enough.

In July last year, the DMA named a number of companies as digital gatekeepers including Google, Facebook-parent Meta, Amazon, Apple, TikTok-parent Bytedance and Microsoft. Digital gatekeepers are large companies that are an access point for consumers and are able to use their market position and power in a way that impacts other markets.

So far online travel platforms have escaped the reaches of the regulation, although said last summer that it would reach the threshold to be considered a gatekeeper in December.

Google and the other gatekeepers have until March 7, when the regulations come into force, to comply. In an update last week the search giant shared some of the changes it is testing and implementing. Part of Google’s changes affect search results, and the company said it plans to introduce “dedicated units that include a group of links to comparison sites.”

One of the criticisms leveled at Google in recent years is that it prioritizes its own results in search pages. In its update regarding changes, Google said it often returns price information and pictures, which are designed to help consumers find what they need.

“For categories like hotels, we will also start testing a dedicated space for comparison sites and direct suppliers to show more detailed individual results including images, star ratings and more,” the company said. “These changes will result in the removal of some features from the search page, such as the Google Flights unit.”

In its update Google also said it had been seeking feedback from regulators and stakeholders on its changes in recent months. “While we support many of the DMA’s ambitions around consumer choice and interoperability, the new rules involve difficult trade-offs, and we’re concerned that some of these rules will reduce the choices available to people and businesses in Europe.”

However, Spain-based eDreams Odigeo said the changes “fall short of meeting the essential requirement to treat rival services and products on an equal footing with its own.”

In a statement, CEO Dana Dunne said the DMA is an opportunity to “address the persistent imbalance that has existed for years in the European digital landscape, creating a chance for a fairer and more equitable digital ecosystem.”

Other European entities representing travel and non-travel companies also chimed in last week with their views on Google’s proposed changes.

Calls for compliance

EU travel tech, a trade association that counts Airbnb, Amadeus, Expedia Group and Travelport among its members, said it has been discussing compliance with Google around travel search for months.

“We urge Google to put an end to the preferential treatment of its own services against those of its competitors,” Emmanuel Mounier, eu travel tech secretary general, said in a statement last week. “Our assessment of the solutions shared so far is that there is still quite some work to do. We look forward to seeing progress on these solutions and full compliance with the DMA by March 7th.” 

A further body, called the EU Tech Alliance, issued its own statement accusing the designated gatekeeper companies of failing to engage in discussion or presenting solutions that fall short of the DMA’s requirements.

“Businesses and consumers are largely kept in the dark as to what is going to happen after 7 March 2024,” the statement said. “March 2024 is the beginning of a new era, in which gatekeepers, regulators, business users and consumer associations will have to cooperate to make the DMA a regulatory success story. It would be regrettable if that new era began with a false start, which will happen if the gatekeepers do not constructively engage with third parties, including business users and consumer associations, before 7 March on how they intend to comply with the DMA.”

Google has been under European regulator scrutiny for many years. It was fined more than €2 billion 2017 by the European Commission for abusing its dominant position in search “by giving illegal advantage to own comparison shopping service.” 

In the years that followed, prior to the DMA, travel companies urged the commission to enforce the ruling within the existing framework. Google’s appeal to the European Union’s Court of Justice to overturn the fine in September 2023 was dismissed earlier this month by the advocate general with the final decision now with the court’s judges.

In addition, last year Google was found to have breached European antitrust laws through its advertising technology following an investigation by regulators which opened in mid-2021. It could be fined up to 10% of its gross revenue as a result.

Google is also embroiled in an antitrust suit in the United States, which was launched in 2020 and could have far-reaching implications for the company as well as the travel industry, with a decision expected this month.

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