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US senators want anti-bot laws to be better enforced following Taylor Swift ticketing meltdown

By | Published on Wednesday 30 November 2022

Taylor Swift

Two more US senators have been prompted by the recent issues around the sale of tickets for Taylor Swift’s 2023 tour to put the spotlight back on the ticketing business. Though, for Marsha Blackburn and Richard Blumenthal, the current focus is touts employing bots to buy up tickets at scale.

There was plenty of social media outrage, resulting in widespread news coverage and political commentary, after Live Nation’s Ticketmaster recently struggled to cope with the demand for tickets for Swift’s first live shows in five years.

That has renewed criticism of Ticketmaster itself among both the artist and political communities, including the fact the ticketing giant is part of the wider Live Nation group. As a result senators Amy Klobuchar and Mike Lee announced that the Senate’s Judiciary Subcommittee On Competition Policy, Antitrust And Consumer Rights would hold a hearing to “examine the lack of competition in the ticketing industry”.

“But what about the bloody bots?”, you might wonder. When responding to all the hoo haa that kicked off when Swift’s fans struggled to buy tickets via its Verified Fan system, Ticketmaster in part blamed the bots that were seeking to circumvent said system for adding to the strain that caused the ticketing firm’s online platform to fall over.

The Verified Fan system is actually designed to stop touts using clever tech to hoover up tickets for in-demand shows before fans have had a chance to buy them. Though technically speaking said touts shouldn’t be using technologies of that kind in the first place, because the US is one of the countries to outlaw such tactics.

In the US, the use of bots by ticket touts became illegal in 2016 via the passing of the Better Online Ticket Sales Act – or BOTS Act if you prefer. So, while Klobuchar and Lee are using the Swift tickets meltdown to investigate the market dominance of Live Nation and Ticketmaster, Blackburn and Blumenthal want to know why the BOTS Act isn’t being better enforced.

To that end, they have written to the US government agency meant to be doing the enforcing, that being the Federal Trade Commission. In their letter to its Chair Lina M Khan, the senators begin: “We write to ask for information about the steps the FTC is taking to combat the use and operation of bots in the online ticket marketplace”.

“As you know”, they go on, “the Better Online Ticket Sales, or BOTS Act, became law in 2016. This law prohibits the circumvention of a security measure, access control system, or other technological control measure used online by a ticket issuer”.

“It also prohibits the selling or offering of an event ticket obtained through a circumvention violation if the seller participated in, had the ability to control, or should have known about the violation. The BOTS Act gives the FTC and state attorneys general the authority to enforce violations as unfair and deceptive practices”.

They then run through various recent shows and tours where fans have reported experiencing all sorts of technical issues when buying tickets, including concerts from Bob Dylan, Blake Shelton and, of course, Taylor Swift.

“While bots may not be the only reason for these problems, which Congress is evaluating”, they add, “fighting bots is an important step in reducing consumer costs in the online ticketing industry. While some consumers opt to purchase tickets on the secondary market, most fans cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars for a single concert ticket”.

“Some reports have found secondary ticket sales ranging from $1000 (Bruce Springsteen) to $40,000 (Adele). Preventing this type of consumer harm is exactly why Congress chose to enact the BOTS Act six years ago and why we both chose to sponsor that bill”.

They then write: “We understand that, in January 2021, the FTC took its first enforcement actions under the BOTS Act. However, given the numerous high-profile incidents in the online ticket marketplace, it would be helpful to understand how the FTC intends to act to address such conduct going forward”.

With that in mind, they ask the following four questions.

1. Does the FTC have any pending enforcement matters before it with respect to the BOTS Act?

2. Why has the FTC only undertaken a single enforcement action to date using its BOTS Act authority?

3. Are there obstacles preventing the FTC from exercising its authority under the BOTS Act that Congress should be aware of?

4. Are there other solutions that Congress needs to consider in conjunction with the BOTS Act?

We await to see how the FTC responds.