He's Serving Vigilante Justice Through an App
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Joshua Browder made it possible to sue anyone for up to $25,000 with an app.
By Molly Fosco
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
If you’ve logged into Facebook recently, you may have noticed an unusual message at the top of your screen. The social-media giant issued an apology to users for the massive September data breach in which the phone numbers, email addresses and “liked” pages of 30 million people were exposed. A Colorado law firm recently filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook to help victims sue for damages, but for most people affected, the logistics, paperwork and legal fees of joining a suit like this are too much. Enter Joshua Browder and the DoNotPay app.
Browder invented DoNotPay to help victims in cases exactly like this. After the 2017 Equifax data breach, people who used the app were awarded $7,000 on average, with some winning as much as $11,000. “I’m just making the law free,” says the 21-year-old Stanford student. “There’s no reason why you should pay a lawyer thousands of dollars to file a simple document.”
It was Browder’s terrible driving that inspired him to create the app three years ago. Newly licensed, he was ready to hit the streets of London and soak up some teenage freedom. There was just one thing standing in his way: “I got about 30 parking tickets right away,” Browder says. With the flow of parental cash stanched, the budding software engineer was left to his own devices. He found he was pretty good at getting out of parking tickets, and being the do-gooder type (he’s been called the “Robin Hood of the internet”), Browder decided to create an app to help friends and family stand up to the injustice of parking authorities.
DoNotPay will succeed if we remove the word ‘lawyer’ from the dictionary.
That app eventually became DoNotPay, which has helped fight $16 million in parking tickets in the U.K. and U.S. In addition to tickets and settlements, the app can help you get refunds for late packages, bank fees and ridesharing mishaps (if your Uber driver takes a wrong turn, you could be entitled to some cash) and can help lower the cost of your prescription drugs, just by assisting with paperwork that many lawyers charge an arm and a leg for.
Browder is most excited about the app’s ability to win money from corporations for average people. At one point, Browder recalls, Equifax sent its deputy general counsel to a small claims court hearing where the paperwork had been filed using DoNotPay, and the average person still won. “It’s not rocket science to get people out of these problems,” he says. “Even the simplest tech can help.”
Browder’s resistance to the powers that be isn’t too surprising — he comes from a long line of rabble-rousers. His great-grandfather was head of the American Communist Party in the 1930s and ’40s, and his father, hedge-fund manager Bill Browder, has been spearheading a campaign to expose Russia’s rampant corruption and human-rights abuses. In a sign of his impact, President Vladimir Putin this year said he’d allow Special Counsel Robert Mueller to question key Russians about meddling in the 2016 U.S. election — only if the U.S. allowed Russia to interrogate Americans such as Bill Browder. The young Browder isn’t eager to compare his work to that of his father’s. “Fighting Russian torturers and murderers as he’s doing is a lot more brave than fighting parking ticket bureaucrats,” he says.
Still, the head of the Browder clan has certainly influenced his son in one notable way. “I don’t get put off when these lawyers tell me I should go to jail for practicing law when I’m not really a lawyer,” the tech founder says. And he’ll need to keep up that courage if he wants DoNotPay to succeed, as it has attracted the attention of several attorneys online — who point out the, well, legal problems. Preston Byrne, a technology consultant to law firms and others, tweeted, “Really struggling to understand how this app isn’t facilitating the unauthorized practice of law.”
But that’s the sentiment Browder needs to expect if he continues down his intended path. His mission? To make lawyers obsolete. “DoNotPay will succeed if we remove the word ‘lawyer’ from the dictionary,” he says. Unless they’re being accused of murder, the average person, Browder insists, shouldn’t even know what a lawyer is.
Browder sees a place for technology throughout the entire legal process, and a world in which robots can act entirely as lawyers. He envisions a type of courtroom earpiece with a bot that tells people what to say to the judge, relevant to their situation.
For now, though, Browder is focused on helping average people collect retribution from corporate oversight. Currently, the Facebook class-action lawsuit doesn’t show up on the app, but that will hopefully change soon. At least for those of us whose, say, phone number, email and 10 most recent tagged locations ended up in the hands of hackers and who might be looking for some recompense.