Free Trial Surfing or how to reshape affordances through institutional legitimization

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On: September 22, 2019
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DoNotPay is a company that announced a new app called ‘Free Trial Surfing’ which generates fake credit card details that users can use to sign up for free trials of (web) services without risking having to pay after the free trial period ends. What’s interesting about this new service is that DoNotPay collaborates with a large (unnamed) bank for the generation of these fake details.

DoNotPay started as an AI-powered service that gave its users free legal advice. The interface functions as a chat-bot that provides legal counsel using AI, as well as pre-generated appeal letters that make these often difficult bureaucratic procedures much easier for its users. At the launch of its iOS app in late 2018, The Verge writes: ‘While the app advertises that it can be used to “sue anyone by pressing a button”, its focus is on suing corporations and navigating the complex bureaucracies that stand between people and their everyday rights’. (The Verge, 2018) 

The latest addition to DoNotPay’s services is one that automatically cancels users’ subscriptions at the end of the free trial period. This works by providing users with a virtual credit card (number) and a fake name which they can use to sign up for a service. While there have certainly been services in the past that provided users with fake credit card information, this new app titled ‘Free Trial Surfing’ is unique in that it is in partnership with a major bank. The service is designed as such that the virtual credit card number doesn’t work with any other form of purchase, and it adds an extra dimension of privacy by forwarding all email communication through the app so that the customer’s own email address remains secure. 

Institutional legitimacy

DoNotPay’s services provide users with a way of dealing with institutions that goes beyond what is normally accounted for. In the case of the free AI-based legal counsel it allows unsavvy users to achieve what is often reserved for those who are either able or willing to pay for a proper lawyer, or those with extensive legal knowledge themselves. The new ‘Free Trial Surfing’ app goes even further by actively reshaping the affordances that platforms and other companies provide with their free trial service. Currently, practically any platform requiring a credit card number to sign up for a free trial has some system in place to check whether or not the number entered is real, in order to prevent abuse. Free Trial Surfing goes beyond this in a clever way; through their partnership with the unnamed bank, the fake details they provide to their users are legitimized through the endorsement by a recognized institution. In their 2016 article titled ‘Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse’, Davis and Chouinard provide another example of this reshaping of affordances: “For instance, car manufacturers may design automobiles that refuse starting without the proper key, yet an experienced thief may be able to ignite the engine by rearranging wires, thus turning a refused practice into one that is merely discouraged.” (Davis and Chouinard, 244)

This new service that DoNotPay provides is certainly one that platforms offering free trials are looking to circumvent. The app’s designer, Josh Browder, explains in a BBC article that some platforms were already trying to block the service by figuring out which cards belong to Do Not Pay. “Our bank is so big they would have to screw [sic] a lot of customers to stop the product. They would have to end the entire free-trial programme” he said. (BBC) This creates a very unique dynamic between Free Trial Surfing and the platforms trying to combat it. DoNotPay took a practice that was once categorically refused, made impossible by automatic checks that reject any fake credit card number, and works around it by creating these ‘false positives’ that are legitimized by the bank they partner with. This then completely turns this relationship between users and platforms on its head since the institutional legitimization of this service means the platform owners have no way to effectively combat it without completely reimagining the way in which they offer their services. This service can then also be considered as an example of hacktivism, a somewhat dated term that is often used to describe the ways in which individuals can resist social, economical and political institutions of power by creative and often illegal use of digital technology. In his 2008 article on hacktivism, Paul A. Taylor writes “It is this flexibility of expertise for both specific technologies and the general systems that incorporate them which forms the basis for hacktivism’s novel approach to the problems of conducting political opposition to an economic and social system that works upon abstract imperatives, but which has very real effects.” (Taylor, 4) What Free Trial Surfing introduces then seems to be a form of hacktivism that is being backed by an actor within the very economic system it tries to undermine.

Legal concerns

What remains unclear then are the legal repercussions of a service like this. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to to into detail of the various legal problems that a service like this could provide, from credit card fraud to use with malicious intent, but there are certainly concerns regarding the legality of a service like this. Some of these legal concerns are voiced by finance journalist Felicity Hannah. In the BBC article about Free Trial Surfing she writes: “Consumers shouldn’t worry too much about the ethics but it is breaching the concept of a free trial. You would have to sign up again if you did want to continue with a service so the assumption is clearly that you don’t intend to. […] If this took off, then I expect it wouldn’t be too long before companies tried to find a way around it.” (BBC) 

A field of study that analyzes this kind of technological reshaping of financial institutions and processes is FinTech, a portmanteau of ‘financial technology’. FinTech “covers digital innovations and technology-enabled business model innovations in the financial sector […] disrupt existing industry structures and blur industry boundaries, […], revolutionize how existing firms create and deliver products and services, […], but also create significant privacy, regulatory and law-enforcement challenges.” (Philippon, 2) While FinTech as a field seems to be more focused on the technical facilitation of financial processes, these processes are certainly being questioned by the service that Free Trial Surfing provides. It remains to be seen however if companies are even able to find a way around this without completely revamping their respective business models.

Davis, Jenny L., and James B. Chouinard. “Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, vol. 36, no. 4, 2016, pp. 241–248., doi:10.1177/0270467617714944. 

Kleinman, Zoe. “App That Cancels Subscriptions Launches in UK.” BBC News, BBC, 16 Sept. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-49688309. 

Philippon, Thomas. “The FinTech Opportunity.” National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016, pp. 1–25., doi:10.3386/w22476. 

Porter, Jon. “Robot Lawyer DoNotPay Now Lets You ‘Sue Anyone’ via an App.” The Verge, The Verge, 10 Oct. 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/10/17959874/donotpay-do-not-pay-robot-lawyer-ios-app-joshua-browder. 

Taylor, Paul A. “Hacktivism.” The International Encyclopedia of Communication, May 2008, doi:10.1002/9781405186407.wbiech003.

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