One of the hot-button topics in ticketing for the last decade is the use of so-called “bots” by some individuals and companies. These are computer programs, or scripts, that run in an automated fashion, which can perform actions faster than a human being can.
At one point in time, it was a significant issue for consumers, as these fast-acting programs were able to quickly load pages on ticket sales websites, add tickets to a shopping cart, and allow those tickets to be purchased faster than humans could keep up. But while ticket sellers have continued to claim bots are a major consumer issue, evidence is almost non-existent that this is the case in 2023, nor has it been for several years.
The use of ticket bots has been illegal at the federal level for several years now. The Better Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act of 2016 was signed into law in December of that year by then-President Barack Obama. It outlaws the resale of tickets purchased using automated software programs. It carries penalties of $16,000 for violations, and is enforced by the Department of Justice.
As explained at the time of the law being passed by Consumer Reports, “Bots enable resellers to buy tickets in bulk by automatically completing online forms faster than a human can do by hand, submitting multiple entries at lightning speed, and bypassing authentication codes on websites intended to deter such software.”
In more than six years since this law passed, there have been only three instances of the act being enforced: three companies settled with the DOJ and FTC after allegedly using bots to defeat CAPTCHA systems quickly as well as conceal the IP addresses of computers being used. All three were settled simultaneously in 2021. Another high profile bots case was settled in 2019, but the alleged use of the programs predated their being made illegal via the BOTS Act.
WHAT DO BOTS DO
How the consumer understands “bots” in the context of ticketing, and what the current generation of automated programs actually in use seem to be two very different things. Consumers believe all “bots” to be the kind that is actually against the law – EG the kind that grabs tickets, puts them in the cart, and checks them out before you even get in to the ticketing page out of the wait room.
That isn’t actually the case.
Overwhelmingly, bots are just scripts that are scanning pages across the internet, and most aren’t even considered to be “bad” in any context, including ticketing. Google’s search engine is entirely managed by automated programs reading every page on the internet, regularly, to determine what content should be surfaced. Other automated programs scan pages to report what prices are current for goods, in order to feed shopping listings. The list goes on.
In ticketing, the perception for many is that bots are grabbing tickets, when in fact they seem to be the same kind of programs that are running everywhere else – scanning pages for information without further action.
Even a report released by a bot mitigation firm employed by Ticketmaster admitted that it had no idea what most of the bots it saw in action were doing – it was only stopping any and all automated scripts, and couldn’t determine if any were actually trying to buy tickets.
WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING WHEN BOTS ARE BLAMED
When actual data is made available, it is almost universally shown that tickets being held-back from sale by promoters and venues are what actually causes the scarcity that consumers experience during frenzied onsale periods.
An audit by government officials in Hawaii that was made public in 2020 showed that over half of the total available tickets for events held at Blaisdell Center in Honolulu were held back from initial sale by promoters, with many events showing numbers far above that – as much as 93 percent in one instance.
“Robot sales or bulk on-line sales do not have a significant impact on local sales or availability,” it reads. “We found that online resales, robot and bulk ticket purchases do not appear to pose a high risk to local ticket sales and availability.”
The findings of the audit largely corroborate previous studies of the ticketing industry and the issues that consumers face. Promoter holdbacks are generally the culprit when availability is in question for a hot show. Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office published a comprehensive study on ticketing that found an average of 50 percent of tickets go to presale or insider holds, with the number for high profile performances often far higher. But industry figures resist transparency regarding those numbers at every step.
Even in the most recent Taylor Swift saga, which Ticketmaster has attempted to blame on “bots” when its President and CFO was brought in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, is shown to have nothing to do with them.
Ticket bots were blamed for the Taylor Swift fiasco. It is an act of storytelling, relying on a tired but reliable scapegoat.
The company repeatedly blames bots and scalpers when problems arise in live-event ticketing. The company does something similar with high fees — blaming artists, venues and promoters, of which many are controlled by Live Nation/Ticketmaster. Bots are not the sole or even the biggest problem; rather, the real issue is Ticketmaster’s desire to dominate the full spectrum of live events.
Lawmakers should not be fooled by Ticketmaster’s blame game for two reasons:
First, Ticketmaster clarified that bots did not breach its systems when Taylor Swift tickets were first offered. A since-deleted blog post on its website stated: “every ticket was sold to a buyer with a Verified Fan code. Nobody (not even a bot) could join a queue without being Verified. The two million tickets we sold only went to Verified Fans.”
Second, bots are illegal. Six years ago, Congress passed the BOTS Act, which outlaws the use of ticket bots and the sale or purchase of tickets obtained by bots. The Federal Trade Commission has enforced the law on only one occasion.