Joshua Browder: No Lawyer, No Problem


HE MAY NOT wear green tights, but Joshua Browder – the “Robin Hood of the Internet” according to BBC – does share the famed folkloric archer’s altruistic ethos. DoNotPay, Browder’s brainchild, is the world’s first robot lawyer. For no cost whatsoever, people can receive legal help, ranging from compensation for flight delays to inability to pay for a parking ticket. The user can engage with the site’s chatbot, a computer program that conducts a conversation to find out how to escape the legal conundrum.

DoNotPay was initially started by Browder as a tool for individuals to contest their parking tickets. Most people are unaware that they can appeal to have these fines cancelled or are unwilling to to rummage through tedious legal paperwork. DoNotPay streamlines the process, making the time consuming task quick and user-friendly.

The site has since expanded to tackling various humanitarian issues. Now, DoNotPay is helping homeless people access housing rights, and is working toward assisting refugees complete immigration forms in the US and Canada. In the UK, Browder’s native country, the site helps refugees apply for asylum. DoNotPay has even taken on consumer credit reporting agency, Equifax. Following Equifax’s disastrous security failure that affected 143 million US consumers, Browder has added an additional function to DoNotPay, which helps the millions adversely affected by the data breach sue Equifax in small claims court.   

Aside from DoNotPay, Browder has also programmed an app for Freedom House, the oldest human rights organization in America that conducts research and advocacy on political freedom, and another app for the International Bridges to Justice, which helped lawyers in Africa defend underprivileged clients.

At only 20 years old, Browder is the youngest member of the ‘Forbes 30 under 30’ of 2017 in the category of law and policy.

PULSE: How did you first come up with DoNotPay?

The summer before coming to Stanford, I started driving. After just a short while, I got a large number of parking tickets. In the UK, they’re really expensive and after about the fourth parking ticket my parents told me that they weren’t going to pay for them anymore. I had to figure something out for myself. After becoming somewhat of an expert on getting out of parking tickets, my family and friends all started asking me for help, which basically consisted of me copying and pasting documents. I realized that this could all be automated. So, I created DoNotPay.  

It seems like you were already pretty skilled at coding. How did you first get into it?

Well, I love having the power to make things. In a lot of industries, you have to wait twenty years to be senior enough to have any real impact, but with coding, you’re your own boss. When I was 12, I taught myself by copying people on YouTube – word for word, click for click.

So when did you feel like you were experienced enough at coding to create something like DoNotPay?

In terms of style or efficiency, I’m terrible! I wouldn’t say that I’m really that experienced. I guess I just got lucky creating a project that resonated with so many people. Everyone hates parking tickets. Homeless people get them and billionaires get them too. It’s one thing we all have in common.

 

Aside from invalidating over 160,000 parking fines, DoNotPay has now moved into the realm of human rights. How did you make this transition?

I came up with the parking ticket idea by accident, but all of a sudden everyone started using my site. So many people were avoiding these costly legal fees and this made me realize that the whole concept of a free, automated legal service was much bigger than parking fines. I decided that I wanted to expand into more serious areas of the law. First, I went after the airline companies. Then, I dealt with big banks and insurance companies selling the wrong types of insurance. And then, unexpectedly, charities started approaching me to expand my service to serious social issues rather than consumer rights.

What then inspired you to help refugees with DoNotPay?

My grandmother was a refugee. I heard horrible stories from when she fled the Holocaust in Austria. I felt that this refugee crisis was a personal issue.

How about Equifax? What made you want to take on this massive company?

I was a customer of Equifax and my data was hacked. I didn't want to wait four years for a class action so the small claims process seemed like the best way forward. Out of all my projects, this was the least serious. I’m surprised it’s garnering all this attention!

You started your company in England. What made you choose Stanford? Why did you decide to study in the US?

There’s no place like Silicon Valley for technology. So many things are possible here that aren’t possible elsewhere. In the UK, everyone’s aspirations seem rather boring: to find a good, steady job. In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship and creating things is so emphasized that it feels like anyone can achieve anything.

Stanford has a big culture around for-profit startups. Do you think that the coding community does enough work for the non-profit sector?

I’m not against for-profit startups. My company is a registered company, not a non-profit. However, I feel that the for-profit stuff is geared too much towards buying pizza or ordering flowers or these social apps that don’t really benefit anyone and are just the latest way to chat with your friends. It’s better to make something that has a genuine benefit.

Does the future of activism revolve around tech?

I think that every company and every issue is going to become a technology company or a technology issue. Activism is no exception. We’ve had a lot of innovation in many sectors, but activism is lagging behind and I hope it catches up. For legal technology, nothing has been done. There’s a lot of development on the enterprise side, but not much elsewhere. It’s really exciting to be in a field where not much is being done.

You’re a big fan of bots. Do you think that bots will ever fully replace human labor?

Absolutely. I think that it’s only a matter of time. For example, humans working in transportation are completely going to be replaced. Driverless cars. Driverless trucks. Transportation is a huge employer in America, which makes this reality so scary.

What other industries can you see being run by bots?

I think a bot will eventually do every job that doesn’t require human interaction. Every white-collar worker dealing with information, decisions, logic can be replaced. The first wave of bots took away blue-collar jobs, but now we’re moving on to the white-collar stage. Even computer programmers are at risk. The whole point of artificial intelligence is that the computer programs itself.

What do you think the future for employment is going to be then if computers will eventually take over everything that can be automated?

I think that the future will still be great; although a lot of jobs will go, automation will hopefully make everything cheaper and more accessible. The government will hopefully provide a social safety net or basic income so people will have a lot more time to pursue things they love, be it writing, playing games in virtual reality or volunteering. Ultimately, just living to work will no longer be something that one can do and humans will find things other than work to live a fulfilling life.
 

By: Paolo Vera
Photos by: Kelli Santos

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