U.S. Senator Charles Schumer wants the Internet to be a more law-abiding place. He's called for websites to police unfair use of copyrighted content. He's voted yes on legislation that would allow states to collect taxes for online sales. Now, Schumer wants to make sure bots aren't taking advantage of us online.
The Buffalo News reports that he will unveil new legislation today that would help put a stop to bots cornering the concert-ticket market.
If you're a music fan, you're certainly familiar with this problem. Empowered with easy-to-generate bots—simple software scripts—scammers can very quickly snatch up large blocks of concert tickets and then artificially inflate their value through bot-enabled bidding wars.
It's not just fans wanting to purchase tickets at a fair price who hate the bots. After Ticketmaster determined in 2013 that bots were purchasing up to 60% of tickets for some of its events—purchasing up to 200,000 tickets per day—it started developing bot-busting software to fight fraud. It's invested millions of dollars into bot detection, and according to a 2012 blog post on the company website, its software "fends off millions of bot attacks each year." But obviously it's not been enough.
Schumer's new legislation "would prohibit 'the unfair and deceptive act' of using bots and other software to circumvent safeguards designed to ensure that concertgoers have fair access to buy tickets," according to The Buffalo News. Selling bot-bought tickets would carry a fine of $1,000 for each ticket sold.
The bill is similar to the Better Online Ticket Sales Act—A.K.A. the BOTS Act, which was introduced in the House by Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) in February 2015. Most recently, the bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.
Several states, like California, New York and Tennessee, have anti-scalping laws on the books that specifically reference bots. But critics don't think these state laws are sufficient because sales happen across state lines. If a ticket is bought in New York but the botmaster is in California, who has jurisdiction? Where should the criminal be prosecuted?
“That’s exactly why we need federal legislation, because there’s no coordination between the states,” a Schumer spokesman told The Buffalo News.
The goal is to classify the use of bots as an unfair and deceptive practice, which is in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. That would mean bot-enabled scalping would be considered a federal crime, which would make it easier for companies like Ticketmaster to file lawsuits against botmasters across state lines.
Crime by software is going to become a more urgent problem as more of our world becomes computerized and as bots are programmed to have agency. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency forced Volkswagen to recall almost half a million cars because it had used software to cheat on emissions test. Today, Reuters reported the Justice Department was conducting a criminal probe related to the charges.
Enforcement, of course, is going to be tricky because the law has yet to catch up to the types of crime happening in the digital age. Keeping bots and other types of fraudulent software in check has been an issue even for big tech companies, like Twitter and Facebook, so law enforcement agencies, which often lack the expertise to fight digitally savvy criminals, are at an even bigger disadvantage. Under those circumstances, it would seem that bot-enabled fleecing will be hard to control, even with the most well-intentioned legislation.
In Tennessee, where there's been a bot-scalping law, for instance, no one had been prosecuted in the six years since the law was enacted, according to a 2014 investigation by The Tennessean.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.