Automated bots that buy up online goods like graphics cards and game consoles are the target of a new bill introduced by a group of Democratic lawmakers in the US this week. The Stopping Grinch Bots Act aims to rid online retailers of bots that snatch up in-demand items as soon as new stock is available, preventing regular shoppers from buying popular items and supplying scalpers with hard-to-find products to sell at absurdly high prices.
The bill, which is being proposed by US Representative Paul Tonko and Senators Richard Blumenthal, Chuck Schumer, and Ben Ray Luján, calls these automated buying programs “Grinch bots” because they “buy up whole inventories of popular holiday toys and resell them to parents at high prices,” according to the press release. The release doesn’t specifically mention graphics cards or other PC gaming components, but the bill, if passed, would apply to all internet retailers.
Since 2020, the chips inside graphics cards, CPUs, and other similar electronics have suffered manufacturing delays alongside increased demand due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s common to see a 30-series Nvidia graphics card’s price go up to three times their suggested retail prices on Ebay and third party sellers on sites like Amazon and Newegg.
The bill would make it illegal under the Federal Trade Commission Act for automated programs to appear as humans and scrape online retailers of their stock of items as soon as they appear, circumventing online retailers’ security systems and access control systems (CAPTCHAs, queues, etc). If identified, bot creators would be sued by the FTC. The bill points to the 2016 Better Online Ticket Sales Act that was proposed by many of the same lawmakers and passed by Congress to stop the same thing from happening with online ticket sales.
It’s unclear how the law would be enforced. Retailers would presumably have to report suspicious behavior and then the offending users would have to be tracked down. That might be tricky given that users linked to the bots could be located internationally. Also unclear is exactly what forms of automated access control circumvention will be deemed illegal. In the wake of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S scarcity, users have made use of browser extensions and websites that periodically check for the amount of stock available. Technically these are automated systems that give people an advantage over a regular shopper, but whether or not they are classified as a “bot” and therefore in violation of this potential law is vague.
This is the third time the Stopping Grinch Bots Act has been introduced. The bill was created in 2018 and reintroduced in 2019. This year, the bill is backed by three non-profit consumer advocacy groups: the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, and National Consumers League. The bill has yet to move forward in Congress, but amid massive global supply chain issues, its chances of getting approved could be higher.