WASHINGTON -- Government officials are letting Google Inc. proceed with its $700 million purchase of airline fare tracker ITA Software, but are imposing significant conditions on the deal.
The purchase will establish the Internet search giant as a key player in the online travel market. ITA gives Google control over the technology that powers the reservation systems of most major U.S. airlines and many popular online fare-comparison services, including Kayak, TripAdvisor and Hotwire.
But to win Justice Department clearance Friday, Google agreed to license ITA's software to other companies, and it will be prohibited from accessing any proprietary data or technology of ITA customers that resides on or runs through ITA servers.
In addition, the government will monitor Google to ensure it does not engage in anticompetitive behavior. That could include manipulating its powerful Internet search engine to steer consumers to its own services – or bury links to rivals far down in its search results – if it uses ITA to enter the online travel business.
The company will be subject to broad requirements to report to government officials on its online travel operations, including travel search and advertising. In addition, the government will establish a forum for complaints about Google's behavior
This could eventually lay the groundwork for a broader investigation by either the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission into Google's practices as it expands beyond general Internet search into more specialized markets. The company's search results already highlight some of its own specialized services, including mapping, video and finance.
The European Commission and the Texas attorney general are currently looking into whether Google manipulates search results to extend its monopoly into other online businesses.
Google has promised it won't sell airline tickets or book other travel arrangements on its own site. Rather, it has said it wants to use ITA to improve its search results for travel – giving consumers more choices and better ways to search for plane tickets. That would enable the company to command higher ad rates from airlines, hotels, rental car agencies and other leisure services trying to reach travelers.