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To bot or not to bot? Ethics of the seat-buying arms race

Just because you can … should you? The recent upswing of bots that game the online reservation market begs that very question. Developers are creating custom-written programs (otherwise known as bots) to monitor and automatically reserve coveted seats, edging out their competition with computer skills. 

In San Fransisco, sites like HackerTable and a code introduced by developer Diogo Monica use custom programs to nab tables at hip restaurants. While HackerTable helps people find reservations, it still requires you to manually reserve tables yourself. Monica’s code makes it so your reservations are made automatically, so it goes an extra step to grab seats the moment they become available. So if you’re a tech-savvy SF-area food lover, Monico’s code could help you automate the endless Urbanspoon and OpenTable visits you’re making – the refresh game is over. 

But bot usage to snag seats isn’t limited to Bay Area gastronomes, and it’s a development with big implications about how we buy things online. Because of this trend, there’s a big question to be asked here: Are people who use technology to work around tricky reservations systems simply making the best of a bad situation, or are they creating a less even playing field that shuts out people without the requisite tech know-how?

“Since using a bot is basically the equivalent of cutting in line, bot use is certainly never justified.”

The use of bots to siphon event tickets has drawn the ire of ticketing agencies and fans for years, with legislation introduced to curb ticket-snagging bots in California and other states. Despite the fact that ticket sales agents often deny using bots and support anti-bot measures, sellers like Ticketmaster insist that bots are creating major problems, and have sued numerous individuals for using them to get tickets. Ticketmaster told the New York Times that bots were used to buy up to 60 percent of tickets for certain shows.

This sort of behavior locks out normal customers who attempt to purchase tickets by going through the motions online, since the amount of tickets open for purchase to the general public is often far less than many people think. This is partially because of bot programs run by scalpers, and partially due to the practice of reserving tickets for certain credit card holders and VIPs. Whatever the cause, it means your Average Joes without coder knowledge or VIP standing won’t be getting a seat as easily. 

But while bots that buy concert tickets are generally run by businesses, Monica’s code for reservation bots is aimed at normal people who just want to eat at a trendy restaurant. And Monica is determined to use bots to make the reservation process easier for everyone, not just coders. “I’m actually working on a website that allows non-technical people to take advantage of my bot to get reservations,” he says. “I’m trying to level the playing field.” 

Monica isn’t under any illusions that using bots on systems that don’t already have them is an ethical thing to do. “I agree that using bots is unfair,” he says. “The reason why I created and publicly released my bot was because other people were already using them. By releasing my code I hope I’m making Urbanspoon and OpenTable step up their game and make it harder for bots to beat real humans at reservations.”

So even the creator of a seat-snagging bot admits it’s an imperfect solution; although it may help level the playing field, it’s a bit of a two-wrongs-attempting-to-make-a-right type of situation. Monica has a few ideas of more permanent fixes. “Well, CAPTCHAs are the obvious solution,” he says. “Unfortunately they significantly degrade the experience of any online service – we all have experienced the pain of trying to guess the letters on those pictures. There are also a few companies that are specializing on this problem and have more data-driven solutions approaches to solving this.”

Non-profit Fan Freedom attempts to protect people who want to buy tickets the old-fashioned way from scalpers and other businesses that use dubious methods to snap up seats, and Communications Director Chris Grimm is no fan of bots. “Since using a bot is basically the equivalent of cutting in line, bot use is certainly never justified,” he says. “Fans deserve fair access to face value tickets, and bots, whether used by professional resellers of frustrated fans, rob fans of that right.”

Urbanspoon told Buzzfeed it does not believe Monica’s assumptions that reservations are being taken over by bots is correct, so it may not think implementing a change to its reservation system is necessary. But the fact the Monica easily came up with a way to write code for a bot to game the system sure makes it seem like others would do so, too, and if it’s that simple, there’s a very good chance that there are bots buying up all sorts of tickets online. Grimm notes that it’s impossible to be sure how many tickets are ensnared by bots. “Ticket sellers like Ticketmaster are the only ones who know how many of their tickets were purchased with bots and they have never released that information,” he says. Grimm believes bots may not be as prevalent as Ticketmaster has led fans to believe, and that the larger problem may be the practice of holding tickets for fan clubs and other exclusive groups. But even if Ticketmaster is overplaying their importance, they’re still adding to the headache normal fans encounter when they’re trying to get into an event.

Since it’s a problem in the greater ticketing industry, the way bot-making is bleeding into other situations where people want to reserve coveted seats makes sense. And unless the businesses that let you buy these tickets pay attention to the bot problem and come up with CAPTCHAs and other solutions to thwart them, people who want to attend these dinners and events will face an ethical dilemma: use bots to gain access, or stick with the system at hand and risk missing out.

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