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Ticket bots: Hidden menace or red herring?

While ticket bots – automated software used to hoover up concert tickets to then resell – remain legal in most of the world, the last 12 months have seen official sentiment in several major markets shift towards prohibition.

The state of New York was the first to criminalise the usage of bots, with legislation introduced by Carl Heastie and Marcos Crespo providing for up to a year in prison for offenders. The Canadian province of Ontario followed suit in September, and the US as a whole outlawed bots in December with then-president Barack Obama’s signing of the Better Online Ticket Sales – or Bots – Act into law.

The UK, meanwhile, is set to soon introduce its own ban, while Adelaide senator Nick Xenophon is pushing for anti-bot legislation in Australia.

The vast majority of those working in the live music industry agree on the need for a ban on bots – including, tellingly, secondary ticketing giants StubHub and Ticketmaster (Seatwave, Ticketmaster Resale, TicketExchange, Get Me In!) – but there are concerns among some anti-touting activists that a singular focus on bots could detract from the conversation around what they see as a fundamentally broken ticketing market.

Speaking to the UK parliament committee on ‘ticket abuse’ earlier this month, Rob Wilmshurst, CEO of Vivendi Ticketing/See Tickets – which recently launched its own face-value ticket exchange, Fan2Fan – said he believes bots have been a “red herring” in the debate over secondary ticketing in the UK. “We’ve added more technology to thwart them [bots], but we don’t see conversion rates dropping,” he told MPs.

Similarly, Adam Webb, of anti-secondary campaign group FanFair Alliance, responded to the US’s bot ban with a note of caution, highlighting that the legislation was “supported by companies who run secondary ticketing services, and who benefit directly from mass-scale ticket touting”.

Are ticket bots, then, a straw man on which the big secondaries are happily pinning the blame for headline-grabbing $3,000 Adele tickets, or could a global ban on bots actually be effective in eliminating price-gouging in the secondary market?

“Bots aren’t the only way tickets end up on the secondary market”

Reg Walker, of events security firm Iridium, says any legal initiatives aimed at combatting bots “can only be a good thing”. He concedes that while there are “systemic problems in the ticket industry as a whole”, including ticket agencies with a “foot in both camps” (primary and secondary), “any legislation that goes any way towards levelling the playing field must be welcomed”.

Walker cautions, however, that “legislation is only as good as the amount of enforcement that goes into supporting it”. A major problem with the law in the UK, he tells IQ, is that the onus is on secondary sites themselves to report attempts to buy tickets using bots: “Is there any incentive to report bot attacks when the same company may well end up, by intention or inadvertently, being a net beneficiary of that activity?” he asks.

The chief executive of the UK’s Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR), Jonathan Brown, agrees on the importance of ticketing sites reporting all bot attacks. “Bots are certainly one way that touts get hold of tickets, and it’s great that there is action specifically on this issue,” he explains. “However, we have always said that this also needs to go alongside far greater understanding and technical defences against such attacks – and, of course, a need for attacks or suspected attacks to be reported.”

Legislation targeting bots is a “great first step”, says Ant Taylor, the founder and CEO of Lyte, which powers the new ‘fan-to-fan’ ticket exchange from Ticketfly, a supporter of the bot ban in the US. “The public has experienced longstanding frustration from not having access to tickets for their favourite artists, or having to pay exorbitant prices to do so.”

Taylor highlights the importance of fans genuinely unable to attend a show having a “viable technological alternative”, such as Ticketfly/Lyte, to resell their ticket. “We’ve integrated Lyte directly with a primary ticketing company,” he continues, “so their venue and promoter partners now have complete control of the fan experience. This keeps the money in the hands of those who contribute to these incredible live event experiences and away from scalpers who purely profit off them.”

Patrick Kirby, managing director of recently launched white-label platform Tixserve, cautions that overemphasis on bots could lead to a spike in “low-tech” crime such as counterfeiting. “An unintended consequence of the ban on bots might be an increase in the fraudulent duplication or counterfeiting of tickets, which is a low-tech activity when tickets continue to be paper-based,” he tells IQ.

“Professional touts already use other, non-bot, methods of acquiring primary tickets for the secondary market”

Kirby says the effectiveness of banning bots will depend largely on the “extent to which bot operators will seek to circumvent the new legislation. The previous experience of the Tixserve team in the card payments and mobile-airtime distribution sectors is that the targets of anti-abuse measures always look to find creative ways of protecting their lucrative, ill-gotten incomes. Sometimes, it can be akin to pinning down a lump of jelly.”

Walker believes, however, that it’s extremely easy to tell when a site has fallen victim to a bot attack.

“We live in a technological age, and there is an overdependence on computer programs and algorithms to detect this activity,” he comments. Bot attacks are “so easy to spot on primary ledgers”, says Walker – providing ticket agencies actually take the time to look. “We haven’t found a single case, bar one, where a primary or secondary ticket agent has gone to police or Trading Standards and asked them to investigate,” he explains.

“Bottom line: it [banning bots] is not a silver bullet,” comments Adam Webb, who as FanFair campaign manager welcomed plans by the British government to ban bots as part of its implementation of the Waterson report.

“Moves by government[s to] criminalise the misuse of technology to bulk-buy tickets are an important and welcome step,” Webb tells IQ. “However […] not every tout has this sort of software in their armoury. There are many alternative ways to access large volumes of inventory…

“That’s why FanFair, in our response, was keen to give equal weight to the other elements of government’s announcement, particularly the blanket acceptance of Professor Waterson’s recommendations and suggestion of further actions to improve transparency in this market. (Waterson’s recommendations largely centre on proper reinforcement of the 2015 Consumer Rights Act, which obliges resellers to list the original face value, seat/row numbers and any ticket restrictions.)

“Bottom line: It is not a silver bullet”

Kirby adds that banning bots ignores “professional touts [who] already use other non-bot methods of acquiring primary tickets for placement on the secondary market”. In response to bot bans, resellers could, says Kirby, “ramp up the practice of using teams of people masquerading as genuine fans to buy significant amounts of tickets using multiple identities, addresses and credit cards”.

Stuart Cain, managing director of NEC Group’s The Ticket Factory, agrees with Walker that “banning bots is just one part of a much wider story”, but says any legislation “that allows for greater transparency in the market and help to stop fans being conned is a positive”. “There’s still a way to go, but [banning bots] is a promising first step when it comes to the industry finally cleaning up its act,” he comments.

While Walker praises the recent raft of anti-bot measures as “fantastic” – and the recent British legislation, in particular, as having real “teeth” – he warns against the tendency to think of banning ticket bots as a panacaea to sky-high prices on the secondary market.

“The danger is that while we have all this focus on bots and software, the other structural issues in ticketing could be ignored,” he concludes. “Bots aren’t the only way tickets end up on the secondary market.”

 


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Ticketing: Reforming a broken market

It’s not often that I watch Parliamentlive.tv. Rarer still would I attach words like ‘compelling’ to its content. However, Tuesday’s Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee hearing into secondary ticketing (watch here), proved to be just that, and never more so than when hearing consumer champion Claire Turnham describe hers and others’ ticket-buying experiences on Viagogo – her battles with which have, by default, turned her into chief campaigner in the platform’s refund debacle. To date, 425 complainants across 26 countries await refunds collectively amounting to tens of thousands of pounds.

Somewhat ironically, it is possibly as a result of Viagogo’s seeming intransigence and most recently, its dubious ‘glitch’ practices – coupled with the tireless #ToutsOut campaign led by the MMF and FanFair Alliance – which may, finally, bring about much needed reform to the secondary market.

As Kilimanjaro’s Stuart Galbraith reminded the committee hearing, previous government flirtations with this issue have yielded little fruit. A two-year process back in 2007, during which Galbraith declared “…we have lost control over our industry”, concluded with then-culture minister Tessa Jowell declaring that the industry itself needed to self-regulate. Effectively a green light for rank profiteering by industrial-scale, online touting, little wonder that the sector has since been awash with headlines, horror stories and cries of ‘foul’ ever since. Nor was it helped by subsequent culture secretary Sajid Javid (2014) applauding the “classic” entrepreneurialism of the secondary market.

Tuesday’s proceedings appeared to genuinely shock the assembled MPs who expressed outright disgust at the practices of many secondary ticketing operators. It could be argued that the government has unwittingly scored an own goal, and now finds itself backed into a corner from which it surely can’t escape without meaningful action. While the Brexit referendum and resulting fall-out have undoubtedly starved MPs of time for precious little else, government has been extremely slow to respond to the recommendations of its own Waterson report, which last May delivered grounded recommendations to correct a market in apparent free fall.

Austerity cuts have hit local authorities hard, with many fearful of the financial risks of taking on major prosecutions

At the same time, its fair to say the primary market also has to step up and bear some responsibility for failing to become more consumer-friendly, whether that be the inevitable frozen/timed-out experience of online booking on the day-of-sale, or the inflexibility of some operators to enable consumers to legitimately resell/exchange tickets they no longer need – a market failing that has led to the growth of the secondary platforms, the most prominent and controversial of which being the ‘big four’ of Seatwave, Get Me In!, Viagogo and StubHub. Indeed, Nigel Huddleston MP described Viagogo as “one of the most psychologically manipulative websites I have ever seen”. As a former Google employee, he’s perhaps better placed than most to make that judgment.

However, might the biggest cause for concern be that while the use of online ticket bots is to be regulated, opinion is divided as to how much the use of bots is to blame in the first place, bringing the elephant in the room – clandestine industry practices – into stark focus?

Consumer education is seen by many as pivotal to bringing about meaningful change, helped in no small measure by Monday’s publication of FanFair Alliance’s guide to tout-free ticket-buying online.

While it could be said advances in technology are responsible for where we find ourselves right now, it’s also very much part of the solution

While undoubtedly part of the ‘solution’, we at MusicTank feel other areas of discussion similarly need urgent focus:

Enforcement of existing legislation
Since the Consumer Rights Act 2015 came into being – making explicit the information that sellers of tickets must declare – to date, not a single prosecution has been brought against serial abusers of the secondary market.

You don’t have to look far for examples – all ‘big four’ secondaries were making tickets for the recent Ed Sheeran Teenage Cancer Trust gig available, despite resale being explicitly forbidden in the tickets’ T&Cs and promoter Galbraith writing to these operators not only asking them to not list inventory, but also drawing their attention to the fact that any tickets bought on the secondary market will be void.

Allied to this is the outright fraudulent nature of ticket selling deployed by some. Viagogo claim they are not ticket sellers – merely enablers – yet advertise tickets for sale. They also sell tickets that don’t exist to events in the full knowledge that hapless consumers presenting resold tickets bought through them will be barred from entry.

Talk of a 10% cap on the resale value of tickets (first floated by Sharon Hodgson MP in 2011) have re-emerged. Although warmly welcomed by many primary operators and promoters, again, any such legislation is utterly meaningless without enforcement. In this regard, government itself hasn’t helped: its austerity cuts have hit local government Trading Standards departments hard, fearful of the financial risks of taking on major prosecutions.

Regulation is one thing – effective enforcement is quite another…

The primary market also has to step up and bear some responsibility for failing to become more consumer-friendly

Transaction protection
The complexity of some operators cynically gaming territorial jurisdictions appears to absolve serial abusers of regulations, particularly with regard to fraudulent use of credit cards, whether that be by the platforms themselves or the touts who are complicity working with the platforms themselves.

During the call for evidence hearing, Claire Turnham described her initial relief that her bank had initially denied her transaction on Viagogo, thinking she had narrowly avoided a hugely inflated ticket purchase, only to find her card had been re-presented and cleared minutes later through a subsequently different procedure not authorised by her. Although unable to confirm precisely who had accessed her card information to expedite the transaction, the beneficiary was a secondary platform.

Are there gaps in protection for consumers making online transactions via credit and debit cards? In an online world supposedly free of territorial barriers, are some online businesses exploiting financial loopholes and, in the UK, what, if anything, might need amending to the Consumer Credit Act to better protect consumers who are duped and deceived?

Until recently, the live music sector has been relatively slow to incorporate smart ticketing technology in the way the travel industry has

Web search
Just as the record industry has successfully lobbied some search engines for a voluntary code in which they delist pirate websites, are search engines knowingly complicit in the secondary market, providing advertising against secondary market suppliers of tickets, the buyers of which will be barred from entry to performances?

As Galbraith illustrated at the hearing and in conversation with IQ, his experience is that online touts will pay up to 20 times the Google AdWord per-click rate on advertising, in part explaining why search results for tickets consistently list the ‘big four’ ahead of the primary market.

Technology is also the solution
While it could be said that advances in technology are responsible for where we find ourselves right now, it’s also very much part of the solution. Both See Tickets’ Rob Wilmhurst and Galbraith spoke about the importance of an ability to identify tickets in advance of shows in order to shepherd those ticket  owners towards legitimate alternatives and act as a deterrent to touts.

Blockchain – a digital ledger recording transactions, and whose record can’t then be changed retrospectively – has the potential to allow a legitimate change of ticket ownership but not allow, say, the price of the ticket to be altered.

Regulation, consistency in the marketplace and transparency are vital components in a sector in desperate need of reform

Ticketmaster’s paperless system has been used to great success with Iron Maiden and is being deployed to combat ticket fraud for the forthcoming West End production of Hamilton, and platforms like Dice lock tickets to individuals’ mobile phones.

Eventbrite’s The Future of Concert Technology report contains 20 predictions from leading industry figures. Prediction №3 concerns fans’ ability to purchase tickets at the moment of gig discovery on their favourite sites (typically social media). Not only is this more convenient for buyers (fewer clicks to secure tickets), such integration has the potential to better limit abuse from fraud, touts and bots, as the system is entirely transparent and traceable.

Clearly there is some way to go – until recently, the live music sector appears to have been relatively slow to incorporate smart ticketing technology in the way the travel industry has for at least a decade. One can only speculate as to some of the reasons why that might be – continued enjoyment of a cosy, closed cartel of vested interests is certainly up there…

The ticketing debate has rolled on for 10+ years now, with MusicTank among the first organisations to publicly and consistently platform debates on this as far back as 2008, since which, the mantra of “willing buyers, willing sellers” has been used to justify a practice at times inseparable from outright extortion.

Regulation, consistency in the marketplace and transparency are vital components in a sector in desperate need of reform.

 


Jonathan Robinson is programme director for MusicTank. This article was first published by MusicTank on 22 March.