DOJ Green Lights $700m Google ITA Purchase

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Google can go right ahead and snap up travel software company ITA Software for $700 million, but only if it agrees not to kick the competition to the curb, says the Department of Justice in a statement.

Well, sort of. The DOJ’s antitrust division filed a civil antitrust lawsuit this morning to block the proposed acquisition, then turned right around and put a settlement on the table, which if court-approved, would resolve the lawsuit’s competitive sticking points.

“The Department of Justice’s proposed remedy promotes robust competition for airfare websites by ensuring those websites will continue to have access to ITA’s pricing and shopping software,” said Joseph Wayland, Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in the statement. “The proposed settlement assures that airfare comparison and booking websites will be able to compete effectively, providing benefits to consumers.”

Google announced plans to purchase ITA Software, a Massachusetts-based flight information tracker, on July 1, 2010. The web-search giant talks up the proposed purchase on a ‘fact’ site, claiming it would “create a new, easier way for users to find better flight information online.”

ITA’s QPX software is used by travel companies like Bing Travel, CheapTickets, Kayak, and Orbitz, as well as multiple airlines, to search for air travel fares, schedules, and ticket availability. You’ve probably run through their algorithm anytime you’ve used one of those comparison sites (or others).

The DOJ’s restrictions would require Google to continue licensing QPX to airfare websites “on commercially reasonable terms,” to continue funding QPX research and development “at least at similar levels to what ITA has invested in recent years,” and to continue development on ITA’s “next generation” InstaSearch product (think Google.com’s realtime search results, only for travel-related info).

The company will also have to safeguard ITA data from its own employees (to prevent insider info-trading), and avoid agreements with airlines “that would inappropriately restrict the airlines’ right to share seat and booking class information with Google’s competitor.”

Failing any of that, the settlement–in place for five years–provides a formal reporting mechanic for companies to complain.

Better travel searches a-comin’? Let’s hope so. Anything’s better than the mess of pop-ups and multi-link shuffling we’re stuck with today.

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