There are three constants in life: death, taxes, and parking tickets. Joshua Browder, founder and CEO of DoNotPay, tells us how a heap of expensive parking tickets inspired him to build software that helps people avoid fines, secure refunds, claim free land, win back lost savings, and even combat systemic racism. Plus: Could you be monetizing those annoying spam calls?
DoNotPay offers more than 250 “automated justice” services in every US state, from suing robo-callers to annulling marriages to fighting eviction. It earned Joshua the title “Robin Hood of the internet.”
DoNotPay leverages AI and ML solutions, including GPT-3, to shape and refine its decision trees.
Read about how DoNotPay is helping crypto traders who’ve lost money file suit against fallen leaders.
Why PDFs are unfit for human (or computer) consumption.
Follow Joshua on Twitter.
Today’s Lifeboat badge goes to user EM-Creations for their answer to the question The PHP header() function is not redirecting.
[intro music plays]
Ben Popper Automate, scale, and transform your day-to-day processes. You can build and test automation with five attended, five unattended, five test robots, plus access to all automation cloud services. Try UiPath free at account.uipath.com. It’s available for individual use and small businesses.
BP Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am your host Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my colleague and collaborator Cassidy Williams. Hey, Cassidy.
Cassidy Williams Hello!
BP Today we are going to talk about automated justice. We're going to talk about robot lawyers. We're going to talk about a company that often puts a smile on people's faces, DoNotPay, and chat with its founder and CEO, Joshua Browder. It's a great story because it's about taking technology and using it to help people with some of the things in life that seem the farthest removed from the future, like getting a parking ticket. It just never seems to change, always a terrible thing.
CW One of those constants in life.
BP One of those constants in life, death and taxes and parking tickets. So yeah, without further ado, Josh, welcome to the show.
Joshua Browder Thank you for having me.
BP So the first thing we always do on the Stack Overflow Podcast just to help people get situated, tell them a little bit about what was your introduction to software programming and how did you find yourself at school working on this idea which later became a startup?
JB I've loved software development because one person can create whatever they want. In other industries you have to ask for someone's permission, maybe work there for 20 years to build anything meaningful. But with software, you can decide to have an idea one day and work on it for a few weeks and launch it to the world, and that's exactly my story with DoNotPay. I moved from England to study at Stanford in California, and I'm not a very good driver, but I will use the excuse that everyone drives on the other side of the road, and so I got all these really expensive parking tickets. I probably got about 30 parking tickets between the ages of 18 and 20. And I'd always been fascinated by the law and I was a broke college student and so I thought, “I can't afford to pay $50 here, $100 there. How can I get out of my tickets?” And I had some success with my own sort of fines and I got this reputation among all my friends that I was the guy who can get people out of tickets. But as a software engineer for about seven years at that point I thought, “Instead of writing the same letter over and over again, why don't I automate it for my friends?” And I really just expected it as a sort of fun side project, DoNotPay. But one of my friends was a blogger at the Huffington Post and so she wrote about it, and usually her blog posts get like 400 views, but this one went internationally viral and I went from a hundred users on week one to like 50,000 users on week two. And that's what made me realize that the idea of David versus Goliath as software is bigger than just tickets and so I spent the past six years building out DoNotPay to be justice as a service for the little guy and for consumers.
CW That's amazing.
JB I think so too, but I'm biased.
BP So at that start when you were at Stanford, what were the technologies you were using at the time to try to automate it? You were still a student at the time, how did you hack it together? And then maybe tell us a little bit about how it's evolved since then in terms of the tech stack.
JB Yeah. So I was super swamped with my classes and so from a tech stack perspective I was like, “What are the least number of technologies I can use to build this?” And of course I chose PHP because you can kind of insert the front end and the back end in the same file. I don’t know if that's appropriate to do, but that's what I did and the way I automated it was we just inserted the variables as post requests into the documents. That's what got me going. Over time it's become a lot more sophisticated and we’re actually using AI and GPT-3 and all of these advanced technologies, but initially it was just about getting the right letter to the right person to get them out their ticket.
BP So at the beginning the sort of tree of choices was smaller, but now you've expanded. How many different sort of automated services do you offer now? Can you give us a sense of the range of legal services and geographies and things that people can avail themselves of?
JB Yeah, so today we offer 250 services in every state in the United States. Things like fighting your landlord, getting a refund from United Airlines, canceling free trials, suing crypto companies when they hold user deposits. Any dispute below $10,000 we've either done or we're looking at right now. Because these big corporations, they have a very certain business strategy of concentrated benefit and diffuse harm. And so what I mean by that is Comcast knows that they can charge 50 million people a $10 late fee, and that's potentially 500 million of revenue, but those people getting charged $10 aren't going to fight for that $10 because it costs more money and time to do so. And that's the job for software because there's no variable cost to running a software script and so that's the thing we're trying to stop.
CW How many people are on your team working on this?
JB So it's only 15 people. Over 2.5 million people use DoNotPay.com every month but it's served by such a small team, and that's again the beauty of software.
BP And on that team do you have developers as well as lawyers, in house counsel? How do you meld those two things together?
JB We have extensive outside counsel. We haven't managed to replace the lawyers who are helping us so we have several outside counsel, but the core team is just engineers and designers, mainly just from the Stanford community, people who stay up until 2:00 AM browsing Reddit looking for the best consumer hacks that we do in our own lives and we try and automate it.
CW I love hearing how excited you are about the problem that you're solving. I feel like it’s the key to any good software business.
JB I think so. What excites me the most is that there are so many of these things that save me money in my life. What I used to do is I would go to Walmart and buy prepaid gift cards and so whenever there's a subscription free trial, of course people sign up and they forget to cancel and so I would use my Walmart gift cards. And we thought, “That's a great product! Why don't we create the free trial DoNotPay credit card.” And it's this credit card that consumers can use that's not even tied to them and then the software automatically cuts off the real subscription so people don't have to worry. And it's just automating those things in my own life that get me really excited.
BP So have people that you've been battling or fighting for from the consumer's perspective ever come back at you? Have any of these companies tried to undo what you've done or take you to court?
JB Certainly. There was one case where DoNotPay itself was sued for 50 million about a year ago. We were actually sued for something because when people signed up for our service, we'd send them like text message notifications, and they came up with this theory that that was illegal. And we actually won that case. We didn't even settle it, we just won outright and we actually used some of our own software to defend ourselves. I'm not going to say we can take all the credit. We did hire some great lawyers as well, but we were really focused on it as well.
BP So you mentioned that it started out with just PHP, but now you've dipped into some AI technologies and things like GPT-3 which some of our listeners may be familiar with. How are you leveraging modern ML, AI techniques and what benefit or boost can that give to your services?
JB So on the surface, the law should be very objective and there should be no need for GPT-3 because it should be very clear what's right and what's wrong. But the problem is that people talk in their own words like we're talking now, and that's not really the correct legal way to say it. And so the way we're using GPT-3 is, a consumer can come to us and say the problem in their own words and then we translate that into the correct legal document which our bots can collect the details and go down the decision tree. So the GPT-3 is about finding the right decision tree. And so maybe you need to file IRS form 8875 versus a different IRS form, and the consumer saying what they need and being matched to that is where the AI comes in.
CW I feel like just filling out forms in general, governmental forms is such a pain to do. And so anything that can help you get those kinds of things filled out, whether they're for fines or any sort of legal changes or anything is so, so helpful because those forms can be such a drag and full of very legal jargon that people just don't have a lot of education on, the average person doesn't.
JB I really agree with that. The technologists promised us flying cars in the next few years but even having software automatically fill out a PDF, it's an absolute nightmare. Humans find it hard but also software finds it hard.
BP Yeah, maybe PDFs are the problem.
BP So what do you do? GPT-3, I could train it on a million role playing games. It'll help me do Dungeons & Dragons. I could train it on poetry and then it'll write poetry in a certain style. So you train it on legal documents and then it can convert human speak into legalese, is that how it works?
JB Yeah. So for a concrete example, say you're in San Francisco and your landlord is not repairing a leaky tap, which is a very common issue. The consumer can say, “My tap is leaking,” and then the GPT-3 can match it to the special landlord demand for repairs form under California civil codes. And then the bots just go down the standard decision tree filling out the PDF which is still a huge challenge, and then submit it automatically.
CW Are you focusing specifically on the US right now, or are you hoping to expand into other governments, other countries?
JB I think DoNotPay will work anywhere that there's rule of law, so UK, my home country, Australia, Canada, New Zealand. But the US is such a broken country that we've made the strategic decision to focus here. It really is broken. So to cancel a gym membership you have to submit a signed letter to Planet Fitness by registered mail, and the fact that consumers still have to do that in 2022 shows that we've got our work cut out for us.
BP I love the sentiment. Can't say I disagree. If you can build a business by fixing it, that's an opportunity. So let's talk a little about that. How does it work from a business perspective? Do you have a subscription or a one-off or do you take a part of the winnings from a court case? Or how does it work?
JB Yeah, so it's a subscription. It's like insurance against getting ripped off. So it costs between $3 and $12 a month depending on how intense a litigious consumer you are, and you get all you can eat access to all of our services. And consumers save between 5 and 10 times the annual subscription price every year. And even things like saving time, like canceling subscriptions, and we also save money. Some consumers have a full time job suing robocallers using DoNotPay.
BP So, wait, you have created a sort of subclass of people who are making money suing. Can you tell me about this? Because obviously, like everyone else I hate the robocallers, so how does it work?
JB So there's a federal law that's called the Telephone Consumer Protection Act passed in 1990. And what it says is that if you get an unauthorized robocall, you can sue the robocaller for $1,500. And of course consumers don't have the time or energy to do that and so the robocalls over the past few years have increased a lot. There are no consequences. So DoNotPay has created this product called Robo Revenge, and the way it works is, the biggest problem to suing these robocallers is you don't know who they are. They have all these shady dial tones and they don't tell you who they are. So we've created a trap, and what the trap is is using software, all these robocallers are trying to sell you something like a cruise or something like that. And so you can say on the phone, “I would love to buy your cruise. Here's my credit card number.” But instead of giving your real credit card number, you give this special DoNotPay credit card number. And when they run the payment, which is declined, we get their name, business address, and phone number through the payment network, which is all the details that DoNotPay uses to automatically sue them in small claims court for $1,500. And there are people who look forward to picking up the phone these days. We have one user who bought a new roof for his house with all of the proceeds.
CW Yeah, I'm thinking about so many payments I could make with all of the spam calls I get in a day. Oh my goodness.
JB Yeah. There is one catch, which is that a lot of them are international and not subject to this, but the US ones you can take them out.
BP Right. Amazing. What's been your favorite sort of mouse trap to build? It sounds like you and this group of like-minded folks from the Stanford community, just 15 engineers at the company, the one you just mentioned is obviously amazing, but are there other favorite solutions or problems you had to hack through that you're particularly proud of?
JB One product we're working on at the moment is, I don't think it'll be that big, but it's very cool. It's called the Free Land Product. And the way it works is, a lot of county and city governments in remote parts of the country give people free land. You just have to fill out the form, even today. And so we're automating that process and I'm excited about that because giving people ownership is really exciting. It's like all the Web3 ownership discussion but actually giving people real land for free.
BP Yeah. It's like Decentraland, but actually you can go somewhere. It is kind of amazing. The thing that you're talking about is that sort of Kafkaesque bureaucracy that people just don't want to get entangled with because they know going to small claims court and having all the right forms and spending the time waiting there probably won't work out for them, so you're investigating all the little nooks and crannies where there may be opportunities in the legal system. But you mentioned that America's broken, do you have a bigger vision for fixing our politics or laws or do you think this is where the fight should happen, at the level of these smaller battles?
JB The systems are in place for consumers to fight back. It's really positive. Every state is coming up with new pro-consumer laws. One of the most recent laws that I'm excited about is the federal government has said that all hospitals have to publish their prices.
CW Oh, that is huge.
JB Yeah, it's really big. And so we’re thinking about price comparison tools for hospitals. So the politicians are actually on the consumer side in general, it's just people don’t know how to take advantage of their rights. And my life philosophy is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and if you are sending the United [Airlines] legal department a five page letter, they're going to refund you quickly. It's just about forcing them to do it.
CW I want to use this. The robocallers one got me very excited, but the hospital thing, I think that's such a significant law and something that I feel like more people need to be aware of those laws, because especially in the US, they can get away with so much charging out the wazoo. Someone I knew, they got an ace bandage or something when they went to the hospital and it was something like $400 for an ace bandage. You don't know to ask for it unless you realize, “Wait, I can just ask for an itemized bill and contest it.” And so things like this, like you say, squeaky wheel gets the grease. I feel like more people need to do it and any service that helps with that is huge.
JB Yeah. I thought about it more and I think one other reason America is so broken is there is a lot of lobbying. So my biggest worry with DoNotPay is that we never want to perpetuate the problem that we're solving like some of these other companies.
BP Right, right. Josh, before we go, you mentioned GPT-3, but are there particular things you're looking forward to in the future? I know as you mentioned and I saw you on Bloomberg, you've recently gotten into helping people try to reclaim money from some of the crypto lenders that shut down. But when you look out to the next year or two, what are you excited about in terms of new technologies, more hiring and expanding, or new areas of the law that you might take on?
JB So COVID has accelerated the legal system by 10 years, because in the past, the justice system created this bottleneck where people had to show up for everything, even to appeal a parking ticket in some places. But COVID gave the governments an excuse to accept online filings. And so the things that DoNotPay can do has accelerated drastically and we are falling behind on all of the things that we’re working on that's possible to do. And that's assisted by some technologies like GPT-3, but also just us doing the work and automating these use cases. One final product that I'm really excited about that we're working on in the next two weeks is an anti-racism product. And the way it works is, in all of these homeowners’ deeds and homeowners’ associations, especially if it's an older home, in places like California there are these racist restrictions in the deeds themselves. And in 1958 there was a Supreme Court case that said that all of these racist provisions aren't valid but that doesn't mean the deeds were changed. And so there's a lot of this institutional racism still in our society and we figured out a way to automate its removal. We’re thinking of this new promise for our subscribers, for every subscriber we get, we're going to clear 20 racist deeds in California. So we're working on that at the moment.
BP Very cool.
CW That's so cool.
BP All right, everybody. It is that time of the show. We're going to shout out the winner of a lifeboat badge, someone who came on Stack Overflow and helped a question with a score of -3 or less go on to receive a positive score of 3 or more, and their answer got a score of 20 or more. Thank you to EM-Creations, “The PHP header() function is not redirecting.” Oh, a little PHP back in the show after our talk of it earlier. All right, everybody. Thanks for listening. I am Ben Popper. I'm the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. Email us with questions or suggestions, email@example.com. If you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. And if you like PHP, which has come up twice, we just published a video on YouTube with Andi Gutmans who helped to create PHP 3 and sort of the modern version that went on to build the web. So you can check that out on our YouTube channel.
CW I'm Cassidy Williams. I'm Head of Developer Experience and Education at Remote. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things.
JB I'm Joshua Browder. I'm the Founder and CEO of DoNotPay.com. You can find me on Twitter @JBrowder1 or at DoNotPay.com.
BP Thank you so much for coming on, Josh. We really appreciate it. And everybody, thanks for listening. We'll talk to you soon.
[outro music plays]