Ryanair sues German online travel comparison sites | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 20.08.2009
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Ryanair sues German online travel comparison sites

Irish low-cost airline Ryanair is suing a German company for allegedly reselling airline tickets without authorization. This marks an acceleration of the airline’s war against what it regards as online touts.

A Ryanair aircraft is seen at Berlin's Schoenefeld airport

Ryanair says that sites operated by Unister hit customers with hidden charges

Ryanair lodged proceedings against Leipzig-based internet firm Unister at the High Court in Dublin this week.

The airline claims websites operated by Unister use "screen-scraping" software to gather information from Ryanair's website without permission and then sell tickets to customers at inflated prices.

Screen scraping is the process by which one computer program collects specific data from another. In this case, Unister's software is constantly extracting information from other airline companies' websites – rates, travel times, availability – and then neatly packaging and displaying that information on its own website for potential customers to search and compare.

While Ryanair says it has no problem cooperating with authorized price comparison websites, it is unhappy that sites operated by Unister hit customers with "hidden charges".

When a customer buys a return flight from Duesseldorf to London on Ryanair's own website, for example, the final price including payment handling fees might be 93.25 euros. If a customer buys the same Ryanair flight using one of Unister's websites, additional fees push the final price up to 111.86 euros.

"Ryanair is determined to continue its pro-consumer campaign against screen-scraper ticket-tout websites until the last screen scraper stops overcharging unsuspecting consumers," Ryanair spokesman Stephen McNamara said in a statement.

"Our strategy of defending consumer rights in Irish courts is proving successful and the number of active screen scrapers is rapidly decreasing,” McNamara said, adding: “Sadly, Unister chose to continue overcharging consumers in breach of Ryanair's rights and left us no alternative but to refer them to the Dublin High Court."

Battle brewing

Unister spokesman Konstantin Korosides told Deutsche Welle that while management had not yet received official notification of the lawsuit, they were preparing for a legal battle.

“We think that a German court is responsible, not an Irish one, because we are a German online company. That means jurisdiction has to be here,” Korosides said.

Unister argues that screen-scraper software is not illegal and that its websites simply offer customers a service that helps them make a more informed decision when booking a flight.

“We are an online travel agency,” Korosides said. “We charge a small fee for providing our service. There's nothing illegal with going to a travel agency, is there?”

“We have 1.6 million visitors coming to one of our travel websites every month. Surely they would stop coming if they felt we were cheating them,” he said.

German football star Michael Ballack on the field

German football star Michael Ballack is the face of one of Unister's online ad campaigns

Violation of terms of service

Ryanair, however, maintains that by reproducing information from its website without permission, Unister and other screen scrapers are violating the Ryanair website's terms of service, which prohibit third parties from using its platform for commercial purposes.

The Irish airline has intensified its legal campaign against German screen-scraping websites over the past 12 months, with mixed results.

In May, a Hamburg court confirmed a 2008 injunction that banned German screen scraper Vtours from reselling Ryanair tickets because it was doing so in its own name.

In March, however, a Frankfurt court blocked Ryanair's attempt to cancel bookings made through unauthorized screen scrapers, ruling that the German price comparison website cheaptickets.de did not break any laws when accessing Ryanair's database, and that the tickets purchased through the site were therefore valid.

Since then Ryanair has been pursuing screen scrapers through Irish courts. Earlier this month, four German screen scrapers bowed to pressure from the airline's lawyers and signed a binding agreement stating they would stop accessing the airline's website and reselling its tickets.

Legal grey zone?

E-commerce experts say that depending on the exact application, screen scrapers often operate in a legal grey zone.

“The law hasn't caught up with this technology yet,” said Jason Bellows, an IT consultant at screen-scraper.com, a US-based company that sells the kind of software Unister uses to harvest information from Ryanair.

While many companies in the travel and financial sectors are happy about the extra business aggregator websites attract, Bellows said he has often complied with large companies requesting that his firm decline assistance to third parties planning unauthorized access to their databases on several occasions.

Common reasons for such requests include perceived harm to their brand's reputation for value, a loss of potential online advertising revenue, and – for smaller firms – the technical strain screen scrapers place on low-capacity computer servers.

Many complaints are based on alleged breaches of a website's terms of use, but Bellows said the strongest argument, in the US at least, was the threat of an intellectual property lawsuit.

“People put the information on the internet to be used. Our software just helps people find that information and use it better,” Bellows told Deutsche Welle. “What we are always worried about, though, is copyright laws. We never want our users to violate copyright laws.”

Author: Chad Smith & Sam Edmonds

Editor: R. Balasubramanyam

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