Will the US government crack down on bots after Ticketmaster’s Taylor Swift meltdown?

When Ticketmaster announced it had cancelled sales of Swift concert tickets to the public after a series of presales, it blamed 'the staggering number of bot attacks as well as fans who didn’t have invite codes,' saying that it 'drove unprecedented traffic on our site, resulting in 3.5 billion total system requests — 4x our previous peak.' — Getty Images/TNS

After Ticketmaster fumbled its sales of Taylor Swift’s Eras stadium tour tickets earlier this month, the company blamed “bot attacks” and fans for the meltdown.

Now members of Congress are asking the Federal Trade Commission whether it plans to enforce a 2016 law designed to fight such “attacks.”

Sens. Marsha Blackburnn, R-Tenn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member and chair, respectively, of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security, wrote a letter Monday to the FTC asking whether the commission will invoke the Better Online Ticket Sales Act, or BOTS Act.

Signed into law in 2016, the BOTS Act gives the government the authority to crack down on those who misuse bots — software applications that are programmed to run automated tasks online — to buy large amounts of tickets for profit. These brokers often run ticket bots that automatically suck up huge swaths of tickets as soon as they go on sale.

Those tickets are then sold on third-party sites, often for much higher prices. The law bans the resale of tickets bought using bots, and people who illegally sell the tickets face a US$16,000 (RM71,160) fine.

“While bots may not be the only reason for these problems, which Congress is evaluating, fighting bots is an important step in reducing consumer costs in the online ticketing industry,” Blackburn and Blumenthal wrote.

Peter Kaplan, a spokesman for the FTC, said the agency received the letter but declined to comment further.

When Ticketmaster announced it had cancelled sales of Swift concert tickets to the public after a series of presales, it blamed “the staggering number of bot attacks as well as fans who didn’t have invite codes,” saying that it “drove unprecedented traffic on our site, resulting in 3.5 billion total system requests — 4x our previous peak.”

While the letter pointed specifically to Ticketmaster‘s Swift debacle, the senators also pointed to other recent examples, such as consumers reportedly trying to buy tickets to see Bob Dylan perform in Nashville this past March, only to be told that the tickets in their shopping cart no longer existed. The letter also cited a separate incident where 22,000 fans registered to buy Blake Shelton tickets but only a few hundred people walked away with them.

The letter goes on to point to wild markups at third-party sites with some listings as high as US$1,000 (RM4,447)for a Bruce Springsteen concert and US$40,000 (RM177,900) to see 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,” the letter read.

The FTC has cracked down on individuals using bots in the past. This past January, the FTC announced it planned to issue a US$31mil (RM137.9mil) penalty against three New York-based ticket brokers whom the commission accused of using bots to buy up tens of thousands of tickets for concerts and sporting events, then making millions by reselling them to fans at higher prices.

The letter acknowledged the January case, which was the first use of the BOTS Act, but asked the FTC why it hasn’t done more to enforce against other possible cases of bot use.

The Swift fiasco also reignited criticism of Ticketmaster and its parent company, Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s largest concert promoter. The two companies merged in 2010, prompting fears that the resulting company would have a stranglehold on ticket sales and other parts of the music business.

Crew One stagehands are not subject to the contracts Live Nation has signed with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, for shows in which Live Nation is the direct employer.

Ticketmaster has long faced criticism for the fees it charges consumers, and there has been political pressure for antitrust officials to get involved.

Last week, other members of Congress — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a longtime critic of Ticketmaster and Live Nation, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah — announced they would hold a hearing on the impact of Ticketmaster’s dominant grip on the ticketing industry and “how consolidation in the live entertainment and ticketing industry harms customers and artists alike.”

“When there is no competition to incentivise better services and fair prices, we all suffer the consequences,” Klobuchar said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted earlier this month that she thinks the company needs to be broken up.

A Justice Department antitrust investigation into Live Nation Entertainment was made public earlier this month. It seeks to determine whether Live Nation has abused its power over the live-music industry.

In 2019, the Justice Department was gearing up for a long legal battle against Live Nation over allegations that it coerced concert venues into working with its Ticketmaster division.

Live Nation settled by agreeing to extend some terms of its 2010 merger that were supposed to ensure fair competition in the ticketing marketplace and prohibit Live Nation from retaliating against venue owners that decided to defect to competitors. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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