Commentary

An odd way to “protect consumers”

National authorities treat fines on global corporations as a means to raise revenue – while the consumer suffers.

After a year-long hiatus I returned to my traveling and looked for accommodation on booking.com. The following message welcomed me:

booking hungary restrictions

Booking.com claims that they are not allowed to display non-refundable (cheapest) hotel rates to Hungarian customers (or whoever is checking it from a Hungarian IP) due to a regulation from the Hungarian competition authority. Which is infuriating, since that was exactly the kind of deal I usually search for.

So I looked up the aforementioned ruling of the competition authority – but I found no reference to banning non-refundable rates.

Instead of bragging that they banned booking.com from showing us the cheapest rates, I found a declaration of how the competition authority protected the Hungarian consumers from anxiety-inducing pop-ups on booking.com (the ones that inform you that dozens of other people are looking at the same thing right now).

“In high demand – only 2 rooms left on our site!”

“34 other people looking now, according to our Booking.com travel scientists”

“Last chance! Only 1 room left on our site!”

Anxiety-inducing it is, if this is your first time on the planet. Anyone with half a brain ignores those pop-ups, just as we ignore a property agent claiming that he has dozens of other interested buyers. We congratulate him and leave him to sell the house to those other buyers instead.

The other thing the competition authority accused booking.com was that they misrepresented free cancellation, because sometimes it was with conditions. Like when booking.com said that cancellation is free until a certain point, it wasn’t actually free beyond that point. If you are very stupid and don’t read the end of the sentence, you might get surprised. Makes me wonder which employee of the competition authority committed this stupid mistake and decided to have the last word with booking.com one way or the other.

On the competition authority’s website there is no word about non-refundable rates. The ones that were called “non-refundable” and actually weren’t refundable. Those were the cheap ones I usually booked on my way to a new city.

There is no common ground between what booking.com and the Hungarian competition authority claim. As of the Hungarian media, they slavishly copied the completion authority’s announcement about protecting the consumers from nasty, big corporations and rejoiced – almost as if they collected the fines themselves.

The competition authority collected 2.4 billion forints (7.3 million euros) from booking.com. And trust me, they realized they now have that money in their pockets. Or the budget, or whoever gets to spend it now. They do this for he revenue.

National authorities are wielding their powers against corporations that operate in multiple jurisdictions just to compensate their frail sense of superiority (i.e. to show who’s daddy). They also collect money in the process. They can’t get a lot of money legally in the form of taxes, but they salivate at the sight of juicy profits and viciously demand their cut like they worked for it. If not as taxes, then they get their cut in the form of frivolous fines – while grandstanding that they protected me.

From cheap hotels. That’s what they protected me from.

Of course, booking.com may just spite Hungarian customers to take revenge for the national authorities’ collection efforts. It would be the perfect passive-aggressive response to a frivolous fine – to “fix” it in a way no one wanted you to. It’s not that I like booking.com any more than I like national authorities – although admittedly they work better and bring more benefit to my life.

This was the biggest ever “consumer protection” fine of this particular authority. Earlier last year they also collected a few billions from Facebook and Vodafone – and they are surely willing to generate more revenues protect more consumers in the future if the government needs more cash for their election spending bonanza.

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