Are sneaker bots illegal? A dilemma

Written by Bot & Stuff

January 6, 2021

Are sneaker bots illegal? Well, that is a million dollar question. The simple answer is No, not in the United States of America nor in the United Kingdom.

Sneaker bots are now at the forefront of the retail shoe industry, well bots are everywhere when it comes to retail, but sneaker bots are different, as a sneakerhead would put it. But are sneaker bots illegal? Or is the use of sneaker bots unethical? It is indeed a long-standing debate that is persistently being highlighted in both the consumer protection circles and internet-related bot users.

Why did the bot wars begin?

Before bots were a thing, people used to buy things the old fashion way, i.e., long hours of scavenging through different lists, keeping tabs on different sales, and then long waiting hours outside retail shops. As few sneakerheads reported, they were even forced to bring pictures in their previously owned sneakers just to prove their “love” for sneakers in order to get their hands on a new pair. 


This is all in addition to the weather conditions, long queues, aggressive behaviors, and people trying to jump the queues. Not to mention that if someone had that “insider” connection, they could simply by-pass all the trouble and get their hands on a pair of sneakers easy peasy, leaving hundreds if not thousands of fans in dismay.


Enter the sneaker bots; most sneaker bot users have failed at least once to get their hands on a pair of their favorite pair of shoes the “conventional” way. What started off as sneakerheads’ response to the retail stores quickly evolved into a sub-industry within the $79.19 billion shoe industry within the United States alone.

Is it illegal to use sneaker bots?

Well, to date, it isn’t, but Senator Paul Tonko hailing from New York, recently put some life into the Stopping Grinch Bots Act back from 2018. Tonko introduced the bill in 2018, then followed it up in 2019 in order to put an end to all retail bots, not just the sneaker bots, once and for all. At the time of writing, the bill resides with the United States Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, and the outcome of the findings is expected to be revealed in January 2021.

The bill was introduced twice in the past but had been eating away dust for what can be described as an irreversible systematic fault. The website explains that the bill died a natural death in the system as of 3rd January 2021. Tonko was of the view that “families shouldn’t be further burdened” in the post-COVID-19 scenario; however, sneaker bots are a completely different ball game altogether.

The dilemma with sneaker bots

The system was far from perfect even before sneaker bots were a thing, and as the owner of VP and co-founder at the Alex Kabbara explains, “everyone who was big had a source, someone who’d back-door stock at the local Foot Locker or Nike, so it was unfair.” He furthers that getting a pair of sneakers at the retail price was actually out of the question for most sneakerheads, even when bots were not a thing.

Nike, Supreme, and other big brands have been taking into account the heavy botting traffic at each drop to make sure that regular users don’t suffer the influx of bot traffic that has more than once crashed more than one retailer websites. All the while, bot makers are getting sneakier, collaborating to pass a change in protocols to cop as many sneakers as possible. Most stores such as Nike have now placed an anti-botting clause in their terms of use and resorted to the Raffles system where users are selected systematically to ensure human purchase, one person per sneaker, but that doesn’t seem to solve the problem.

Another interesting aspect is the fact that not all bots are actually breaking any kind of website terms; some bots simply allow the users to leverage the speed to get their pre-scheduled order on time and efficiently quicker. It saves them long hours of wait and the chance that another bot user is going to snatch their chance away to buy their favorite pair of sneakers. And who are we kidding? It may just be another aftermarket seller looking to cop as many pairs as possible to make some extra buck; after all, it is not illegal

One can only begin to realize the ethical dilemma when you start to zoom out of the micro-level issues and look at the industry as a whole. Nike, Supreme, and other brands are competing to stay on top in the retail market, and the hype only increases when the latest “sneaker” as quickly as possible. Despite the fact that brands can actually press charges and good evidence that brands can track down the bot users, not even a single has been reported to date, coincidence? Definitely not!

Another issue is the fact that even though the legislation to ban the use of bots to buy cinema tickets in the United States was approved, to date, there is no proper mechanism to bring the botters to justice. Michael, a bot shop owner, commented anonymously that even if the Stopping Grinch Bots Act was approved, it wouldn’t make much difference. People are already using proxies, and they are likely to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to get a workaround. On the one hand, brands are taking various measures to create the job harder for bot users, the industry is already in place, and as Kabbara puts it, “… anything humans can do, bots can simulate”.

Our Word

The U.S Footwear industry totaled up to $79.93 until 2017, and the global industry is believed to be reaching $320 billion by 2023. Everything is going online, and like it or not; bots are now a part of the game. While sneakers are a luxury rather than a necessity, regardless of what the brands do, as long as there is the internet, there would be bots. The best-case scenario for brands is to meet the botting industry halfway, creating a half botting half direct sale mechanism to create a new level plain field.

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