The Equifax Chatbot – Get a grip

Good to see amid the prevailing chatbot hysteria that TechCrunch has put the boot in on claims that Joshua Browder’s chatbot can automatically sue Equifax for up to $25,000, with the US news site pointing out the various procedural and legal impediments to the claim.

Browder has launched the chatbot – dubbed the first automated law suit – which helps victims of the Equifax security breach to launch a small claim in the US. Browder himself was one of the 143m affected by the breach, in which personal details were stolen.

This represents a departure from Browder’s other chatbots under the brand DoNotPay – there were 100 when we caught up with him before the summer – which help consumers to complete the initial claims paperwork for anything that doesn’t require going to court and started life as a way to get out of paying parking tickets.

The Verge on Monday (11 September) claimed that the chatbot could “lets you sue Equifax for up to $25,000 without a lawyer” albeit, to be fair, the article did concede that the chatbot can’t show up in court to argue your case and that small claims rules differ from state to state. The BBC has taken up the same line, saying “depending on the state, consumers can sue Equifax for $25,000.”

As pointed out by TechCrunch yesterday, “while it would be cool to fill out a form and get a check [cheque] a few months later, this isn’t the case.”

Aside from the fact that the bot can’t show up in court, TechCrunch points out that you will need to have suffered concrete damages. “Because the form automatically is putting the maximum amount of damages allowed in each state, you’re going to look pretty dumb showing up to argue you suffered $10,000 worth of damages when you may not even have concrete evidence that your personal data was lost,” it says, adding, “filing a law suit based on information you know to be wrong..may also invite the ire of the court. Judges don’t take kindly to people wasting the court’s time and resources.”

Browder has been working hard to extend out his chatbots to cover out-of-court landlord and tenant issues, consumer rights, transport and employment rights (such as harassment in the workplace and paternity leave), as well as situations stemming from misrepresentations made by holiday companies. Speaking to Legal IT Insider earlier this year he said: “In Silicon Valley I see driverless cars and there is no reason it’s not possible to automate any documents that don’t go to court.”

The British-born Stanford University student’s story is compelling and now often repeated – he started off creating a bot to help fight a large number of parking tickets and that quickly escalated. He told us: “It was really a huge amount of work but the breakthrough came when I created a bot to help landlords and tenants.

“It took so long because I had to hard code the bot and it took three months to code all the decision tree logic. The breakthrough came when I created a platform on which you can drag and drop – that changed three months of coding to a day.”

DoNotPay has this year hired a law school graduate and is looking to hire entry level lawyers or paralegals as it grows. With the amount of publicity it is getting, that growth can be expected to exponential.

Browder’s access to justice aspirations are admirable and we like a bit of anti-establishmentarianism as much as the next person. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and forget that chatbots have to function within the remit of the law. The Equifax breach will result in complex class actions that will potentially run for years. Is DoNotPay a great idea? Yes. Will it “dispense with lawyers?” We don’t think so.