European Ticketing Alliance Wants To Rein In Search Engines

Revente de places pour un concert de Prince à Paris
Touts have been around since the dawn of ticketed events – this picture shows an exchange at a Prince concert at Zénith in Paris, France, Aug. 25 1986 – but reselling tickets above face value has never been as lucrative a business as it is today. (Photo by Roger JOB/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

FEAT, the Face-value European Alliance for Ticketing, in its annual general meeting (AGM) in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 19, focused on the role of online search engines in supporting predatory ticket resale through their advertising policies. The alliance estimates, based on a 2019 Guardian report, “that Google is responsible for driving two thirds of traffic to Viagogo.” The latest hope to curb the practice of for-profit ticket resale that hasn’t been sanctioned by promoters, artists, and their teams, comes in form of the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), which came into effect in August for large search engines. It addresses companies’ advertising and transparency policies, as well as a host of other issues referring to a proper, ethical online conduct.

Where the DSA becomes relevant for this business, according to FEAT, is through its requirement of “large search engines to clamp down on illegal product listings.” FEAT members agree that “by failing to properly consider the continued prevalence of illegal ticket resale advertising, large search engines may (…) be in breach of their new responsibilities” outlined by the DSA.

Google had changed its policies a couple of times in recent years. In 2018, it introduced a few transparency requirements for resale platforms it allows to advertise in its search results. In order to be certified, ticket resellers had to disclose on their respective websites that they were indeed a secondary marketplace and not the primary point of sale. FEAT director Sam Shemtob told Pollstar, “we suspect this has had very limited results” as the listings in the search results weren’t affected. “People click on the link without knowing they are entering a resale market,” Shemtob said. And given the onrush during the onsales by the biggest touring artists, it is unrealistic to assume fans would first check whether they’re buying on the correct website.

‘Be Honest:’ Google Collars Ticket Resellers

Google Screenshot Viagogo
One of the biggest issues for those aiming to curb for-profit ticket resale, are the prominent ad placements viagogo is able to secure on Google.

In 2019, following pressure from promoters and their associations in various European countries, but particularly from the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), Google temporarily imposed an ad ban, at least for viagogo, which resulted in a drop in visitors to the reseller’s UK store of almost 80%, as The Guardian reported at the time. “Unfortunately,” Shemtob said, “Google reversed it just a few months later in Nov 2019.” By that point, the CMA had dropped its investigation, along with preparations for court action, stating viagogo had made significant changes to its UK website. It did not address the fact that for-profit resale sites still appeared as the top search results.

After the CMA had stopped its investigation, Google seemed to use this as a rationale to allow Viagogo to advertise globally once more, even despite , civil and criminal actions against Viagogo in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, France, and Switzerland. Shemtob explained, “various countries ban touting, i.e. ticket resale for above face-value, but in France, only the promoter, or ticket platforms that have been authorised by the promoter, are allowed to sell or resell event tickets.” The country’s live events union Prodiss took Google to court, won and then won again on appeal “with the The Paris Court of Justice ruling that Google must not authorize ads for resold tickets, unless the purchaser can prove they have the right to resale,” as Shemtob explained.

See: Viagogo And UK Competition And Markets Authority Settle In Court

FEAT members and campaigners from other countries usually receive “warm words, no action, or worse” when addressing Google directly, according to Shemtob. Pollstar has obtained letters between a long-standing European promoter and Google, as well as between a well-respected promoters association and Google, from the law firm that handled the correspondence. In those cases where the internet giant actually responded, it usually shunned responsibility, referring either to Google Ireland, its UK/Euro headquarters; or to its consumer protections channels, where fans are expected to report infringing websites; or to the fact that ticket resale isn’t forbidden by law. Google’s main headquarter is, of course, located in the U.S., a market where ticket resale is a lot more accepted – to the point where it’s seen as part of the live value chain. Shemtob said this may also affect its approach to dealing with ticket resellers in the rest of the world.

The hopes of anyone campaigning against for-profit ticket resale lie with the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), which is supposed to streamline many open questions regarding online conduct, including ticketing, across the continent. For gigantic businesses like Google, the DSA has been in effect since Aug. 25, meaning that Google would have been required to submit a risk assessment, outlining “systemic risks,” according to the act, stemming from the design and use of its services in terms of the dissemination of illegal content – in the case of ticket resale: illegal ticket listings. “Very large search engines are obligated to work with risk-affected parties when considering ‘systemic risks’ and developing their risk assessment,” Shemtob explained, adding, that “FEAT is not aware of any promoters and event organizers that were approached in the assessment process.”

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