Senators Mull Bill That Targets Ticket Bots, Though Its Impact Remains in Doubt

Billboard

If there's one thing Congress can agree on -- and there may, indeed, be only one thing Congress can agree on -- it's that using computer programs, or "bots," to buy up concert tickets for later resale hurts consumers. The Better Online Ticket Sales Act, or BOTS Act, would make it illegal to circumvent the security rules of an online ticketing Web site in order to buy tickets. The bill passed the House of Representatives in a voice vote Monday, and it's now being considered by the Senate.

The bill got national attention last month when Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Senator Chuck Schumer held a press conference to promote it. Bots have been a particular issue for Hamilton, where tickets now sell for a face value of $200 and sell on Stubhub for between $650 and $2000, according to comments by Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller at a Tuesday Senate hearing.

Unsurprisingly, the companies that dominate the primary and secondary ticketing businesses don't agree on much, either: Ticketmaster would like to set some rules for the resale of its tickets, while Stubhub has an interest in making sure that doesn't happen. As it turns out, though, both companies agree that bots are hurting their respective markets. That's why many political observers expect the law to pass -- even in an election season when Congress is more divided than ever.

The hearing, held by Senator Jerry Moran, featured testimony from Seller; Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference; Stubhub General Counsel Ted Cohen; and Ticketfly (a Pandora subsidiary) general counsel Jeremy Ligel. And although everyone agreed that bots prevented consumers from getting fair access to sports and concert tickets, the Senators present had very different views on the secondary market in general.

Early in the hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal said the bill represented "a good step, if only a modest step, in stopping ticket scalping in this country." Later, however, Senator Cory Booker hinted that transparency in the primary ticketing market also represented a major problem, which could be addressed by another bill that would require ticket-sellers to disclose the number of tickets on sale to the general public. Naturally, Cohen agreed. Both sides seem to see the Bots Act as a good beginning either to a broader attempt to limit the secondary market or to a more ambitious push to regulate primary ticketing companies like Ticketmaster. Neither, though, seems likely in the near future.

It's also worth wondering how effective the Bots Act will be. Violations will be treated as unfair trade practice and enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. But it's hard to know how many of the hackers that operate bots are in the U.S. -- or indeed, are even within the range of U.S. law. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them are based in Eastern Europe, although the relative ease of using servers based in other countries makes it impossible to be sure.

The bill would certainly represent a good first step toward making tickets less expensive, says Sellers, who prefers to keep "Hamilton" affordable. Although he didn't expect to eliminate scalping, Sellers told Billboard after the hearing, "my job is to use every available tool to cut down on bots as much as I can."