Joshua Browder's quest to help ordinary people navigate complicated legal systems started because he was bad at parking.
"When I turned 18, I got a large number of parking tickets," the now 19-year-old Stanford University sophomore told me. “Out of necessity, because I didn't have the money to pay $80, (£60) tickets, I became like a local expert at figuring out how to get out of them."
Equipped with this knowledge, Browder decided to pay it forward.
The computer science student knew how to program apps, so after successfully conquering the parking ticket system in his native London last year, he developed a simple chatbot that could walk his friends through the same process.
Within months, thanks to word-of-mouth buzz, DoNotPay spread beyond Browder’s social circles. Then in May, he brought it across the pond to New York City, where the free app became popular with locals and attracted American press coverage (it also launched in Seattle on Friday). To date, Browder says DoNotPay has helped more than 175,000 people on both sides of the Atlantic get out of parking tickets, saving them millions in fines.
DoNotPay marked the accidental beginning of a movement that Browder now leads: creating chatbots to help average citizens untangle legal systems that don’t have average citizens in mind.
Here’s how they generally work: The chatbot asks you a series of questions, and after you’re done answering them, it provides a legally valid document you can print and send to a government office—no lawyer needed.
For instance, if police enter any incorrect information on your parking ticket, that might be grounds for getting it dismissed. Or if you were issued a ticket, but the street signs where you parked were confusing, same deal. The document that the chatbot spits out should contain all the legalese necessary to contest a ticket with authorities.
These bots also challenge a segment of the legal profession that takes advantage of ordinary people trying to fight routine offenses, Browder said.
"There's this whole industry of lawyers who, at the moment, are making hundreds of dollars literally by just copy and pasting documents. And I think that is something a bot can do for free and replace that job," he explained. "I'm not looking to replace all lawyers, just the ones that exploit people for doing next to nothing."
In his mid-teens, after teaching himself how to code, Browder built simple “informational” apps for non-profit organizations that focus on human rights, including Freedom House, International Bridges to Justice, and others. Today, he gets free legal counsel from these organizations, as well as local attorneys, to ensure his chatbots are providing legitimate and effective legal advice.
Beyond parking tickets, Browder is developing chatbots that tackle other types of injustice. Earlier this month, he partnered with Centrepoint, one of the United Kingdom’s largest youth homelessness charities, to launch an app that helps locals fight evictions.
"You can’t overstate how important it is that this technology is built with an understanding of the social issue it’s addressing," Gaia Marcus, manager of Centrepoint’s Youth Homelessness Databank project, told me in an email. "The fact is it’s easy to turn away a young person who doesn’t know what they’re entitled to and perhaps has no one in their corner helping them navigate the idiosyncrasies of a Housing Office. It’s those turned away that any app really needs to reach out to."
Since Browder just released his eviction chatbot on Aug. 10—and it takes several weeks or months to process the documents to appeal an eviction—it's unclear how effective the app has been so far. Still, DoNotPay’s popularity is starting to make some people, including those in the legal field, take notice.
"For lawyers who make their bread and butter on 'mill' types of business (think demand letters) this is very bad news, particularly if word of this technology reaches a critical mass," attorney Jonathan R. Tung, wrote in a post for legal blog FindLaw. "It's only a matter of time before the basic technology is utilized by those looking to take advantage of cheaper legal alternatives."
(“Demand letters" consist of simple documents that some lawyers prepare for a small fee; they range from a formal complaint about a property dispute, to a cease and desist letter in a copyright dispute.)
Tung applauded the tech's ability to process such run-of-the-mill cases that follow basic patterns and procedures. But parking tickets and eviction claims are just the beginning for Browder. He hopes to build on these small successes, and eventually help the public navigate even more confusing parts of a legal system. For instance, Browder plans to release an app designed to walk Syrian refugees through the process of applying for asylum in the UK and U.S.
"All of this stuff I'm doing now is kind of like a proof of concept," he said. "If I can figure out how to automate as many areas of the law as possible for free, then that would be the ultimate goal."
Critics, however, are skeptical of the chatbots' ability to address more complex legal cases.
"What the apps seem to be doing, it's impressive, but you don't wanna draw too much out of it," Frank Levy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus who has written extensively about artificial intelligence’s impact on the legal world, told me.
"Assuming that because you can tackle a parking ticket means that you can tackle a complex case is sort of like saying that if you know how to check the pressure in your tires, then you must know how to repair an automatic transmission. One doesn't follow from the other."
But it’s easy to see how chatbots similar to Browder’s could help people file claims in which the complainant has experienced a pattern of discriminatory behavior, either in the workplace or on the streets.
For example, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report on police abuses in Baltimore, officers created an arrest template for charges of "trespassing” that already had the words "black male" included in the arrest description. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority charged with the crime were black men. So, if one of these men wanted to sue the police department for false arrest, a chatbot would ask whether they received a citation for “trespassing” that appears to have the word “black male” already printed in the arrest description; it would then formulate the rest of the complaint, which can be used in his case.
"Ultimately,” Browder said, “I want to level the playing field so that almost anyone in the country or the world can get the same standard of representation as a billionaire or a rich person.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.