from the donotpay...-for-the-promises-that-you-made? dept
We’ve written a few stories lately about DoNotPay, the “robot lawyer” service whose gimmick of an automated AI-driven tool that would help users deal with challenges like getting out of parking tickets or cancelling subscription services that are difficult to get out of sounds like a really enticing idea. But there have long been questions about the service. While we’ve seen a bunch of truly impressive AI-generation tools in the last year or so, for years many companies claiming to offer AI-powered services often seemed to be doing little more than finding someone to hack together a complicated spreadsheet that the marketing folks would labels as “artificial intelligence.” It’s unclear how sophisticated DoNotPay’s technology actually is, though as guest poster Kathryn Tewson discovered last week, it sure seemed sketchy.
Kathryn, a paralegal with a preternatural skill at dismantling legal bullshit from people who pretend to understand the ins and outs of the law, sought to test the service’s ability to craft legal documents, and found that the whole thing raised a lot more questions than it answered with weird, potentially problematic language, questionable promises, and just the fact that out of multiple tries, the only document she actually received appeared to be produced by little more than legal madlibs, filling in a template. Furthermore, with the more “sophisticated” documents she requested, she was told they would take hours to send over, which seems strange for a robot lawyer. Of course, as her writeup got more attention, rather than deliver those documents, DoNotPay’s CEO, Joshua Browder, announced that he was shutting down these more sophisticated legal offerings, claiming that they were a “distraction.”
He claimed that he did this after various state bars suggested that his marketing stunt to have a lawyer argue in court while his “AI” whispered into the lawyer’s ear via an AirPod might result in him going to jail. Browder then made the rounds in the press implying that the criticism was from lawyers who were worried DoNotPay was going to cut into their business. In that interview he claims the pushback on his nonsense publicity stunts was “from lawyers,” but that because “there’s not a lawyer who will get out of bed for a $500 refund,” the company will instead focus on that area of business “so that they don’t come after us…”
But, the concerns from Kathryn and others are not about it cutting into the legal profession. I mean, personally, I’d love to see technology disrupt the legal business. It’s a business that could use quite a lot of disruption. The problem is that Browder’s propensity for publicity stunts means it often appears he’s vastly exaggerating what his company can do, and that’s a real concern when he’s advertising it for people involved in serious legal matters, like trying to navigate the immigration system (which, yes, was another offering from the company, which generated a lot of publicity but raised serious concerns from actual lawyers about what could go wrong).
Over the last few days, however, Kathryn keeps turning up more and more questionable behavior by Browder that is making him look like a naive, inexperienced kid pretending to run a serious company, rather than the CEO of a sophisticated “robot lawyer” company that has raised millions of dollars from sophisticated investors (and Sam Bankman-Fried).
Last week, for example, she found that almost immediately after a conversation with her in which she noted that she had not violated the company’s terms of service in running her test documents, DoNotPay’s terms of service were changed to say you were no longer allowed to create “test” documents that were not part of an authentic dispute. That was both oddly specific, and oddly… stupid. Who would ever want to use a Robot Lawyer you couldn’t first test to make sure it works well?
Over the weekend, things got even dumber. Kathryn noticed an earlier publicity stunt from Browder (who seems to spend more time thinking up dumb publicity stunts than making sure his robot lawyer actually works). He had promised to buy up medical debt for every retweet or follow of one of his tweets.
For what it’s worth, it appears he just deleted this tweet, and the rest of this article may explain why. First off, we should note that he’s correct: medical debt is a scourge. We’ve discussed how medical billing is a complete economic scam. For a variety of reasons, the US healthcare space is simply designed to siphon away every penny someone has by the time they die (sometimes hastened by that same medical system). It’s… not great. So, hey, I appreciate efforts to forgive medical debt (though I’d appreciate efforts to fix the underlying system more).
But Kathryn noticed that despite the promise to “post receipts” there were no such receipts published:
After discussing the related issue of how medical debt is often sold for pennies on the dollar, meaning that he could appear to be a lot more generous than he was in reality, Browder jumped into the conversation to claim that he absolutely did make the donation in question for $500, which he later claimed bought up $50,000 worth of debt.
In that (also since deleted!) tweet, Browder presents a receipt from the non-profit RIP Medical Debt (which was created for this kind of purchase-and-forgiveness of medical debt), showing that he paid $500, allegedly on December 2nd of last year.
But (again, never try lying to Kathryn, who seems to be the living embodiment of Natasha Lyonne’s character in Poker Face), Kathryn noticed that something was a little odd in the receipt: while the font of the dates matched the font of the rest of the notice, they did not line up properly in the image, suggesting that he might have photoshopped the date. In an amazing bit of sleuthing, Kathryn highlighted how the dates were posted a little below the line where they should be. It’s something you could really only see if you inserted guidelines and zoomed in close:
She then purchased some debt herself just to see how the email receipt shows up, and found that on her own donation, the dates lined up perfectly with the guidelines:
At the very least, it’s pretty strong circumstantial evidence that the dates on Browder’s screenshots were faked.
But then Kathryn took it up on a notch. She reached out to RIP Medical Debt and asked about Browder’s donation. RIP Medical Debt confirmed to her that Browder’s donation was not made on December 2nd, but rather it was made on January 29th, at 12:36 am EST (Kathryn shared the email with me so I can confirm RIP Medical Debt’s statement on this). 12:36 am EST was exactly four minutes after Kathryn originally tweeted her concern as to whether or not Browder ever actually did buy up the debt he promised.
He posted the screenshot 17 minutes later (which would be enough time to sloppily edit the receipt to change the date).
Browder (who appears to have then gone back and deleted all of the tweets mentioned in this article) did complain about how people were “criticizing a donation.” Except no one is criticizing the donation. The donation is great. Make more of them, Josh.
What Kathryn was criticizing was how you used the claim of paying off medical debt as a publicity stunt when it was unclear that you had actually followed through and which, it now seems clear, you only followed through on months afterwards, and four minutes after Kathryn called it out. And then it appears that you fudged the date to hide that fact. Also, the fact that since you can buy medical debt for pennies on the dollar, you can appear to be way more generous than you were actually being, especially since your original tweet did not promise to pay $10 for each retweet or follow, which would have been more significant.
This would appear to be extremely questionable behavior, and not the kind of behavior that makes one say “yes, I’m going to trust this company to help me resolve legal disputes.”
Perhaps Browder’s next project should be building the “world’s first AI CEO” to replace himself. At this point, I’m not sure it could be much worse or less trustworthy than the human currently in that position. Or, hell, maybe he should ask his “AI lawyer” what it thinks of all this. I decided to ask ChatGPT what it thinks and got a pretty good answer:
And modifying a date to make it appear that you did the thing you promised is also not a good look according to ChatGPT:
Not bad, ChatGPT. Not bad at all.
Again, I wish that DoNotPay actually could do much of what it claims to do. It sounds like it could be a really useful service, one that we would actually like to see more widely implemented. But the antics and shenanigans over the last few months should raise serious concerns about why anyone would trust the company with literally anything. Browder’s seeming unwillingness to be truthful in his discussions on all of these things does not bode well.