Google-ITA antitrust case example of questionable system

Former DoJ official now arguing for coalition of travel sites opposing $700 million deal

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A lot of coverage regarding Google's proposed acquisition of travel software vendor ITA Software focuses on the irony of former Bush Administration Justice Department attorney Thomas Barnett -- who developed a hands-off reputation as an antitrust investigator -- arguing that the U.S. government should stop the deal because it's anti-competitive.

(Also see: How to infuriate Justice Department lawyers, Google-style)

Barnett, as MarketWatch points out, now is "in private practice and representing online-travel service Expedia Inc.," one of several online travel companies opposing Google's potential entry into their market.

ITA makes software used by numerous flight-shopping sites -- such as Expedia, Kayak, Sabre and Fairlogix, all of whom oppose the deal -- and the booking sites of several airlines. While Google says it only wants to use ITA software to improve flight- and travel-related search returns, the flight-shopping sites fear that Google will simply start directing such search traffic to its own sites, essentially cutting out competitors who rely on Google searches to fuel business.

I'm guessing the Justice Department is near some decision point in the case, which heated up a couple of weeks ago after languishing for months. Hence Barnett's shrewd media offensive on Wednesday.

But the story here isn't "free market-loving former regulator turns antitrust hawk" (for pay). That's cheap irony, amusing color. The real story is the same one as always: The revolving door between government and corporate K Street. For a presumably large paycheck, Thomas Barnett can now use his personal influence in the Justice Department on behalf of his corporate clients. He even can return to the DoJ, someday. And there are a lot of Thomas Barnetts out there, deciding the fate of companies that someday might hire them.

The Justice Department has three options: 1) Accept Google's ITA acquisition 2) Reject it 3) Accept it with conditions, such as requiring Google to continue making ITA data available to competitors. Barnett argues that, for competitive reasons, the only acceptable option is to block the deal.

We'll find out soon enough how much sway Barnett's argument holds with his former colleagues at Justice.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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