Earlier this year, it emerged that TurboTax and other tax services “deliberately” hid free filing options from Google Search. The IRS just announced that those companies have agreed to no longer engage in tactics that result in Americans paying for tools when a free option is available.
Back in 2003, the IRS worked with the tax software industry to offer free filing software (income under $66,000 for 2019) for lower- and middle-income Americans. Despite 70% of taxpayers eligible, only 3% of the public takes advantage of the no-cost offering.
Back in April, ProPublica uncovered how TurboTax, H&R Block, and other providers purposefully hid the “Free File” offerings from Google and other engines so that a general search would not find the page. Rather, people had to visit an IRS page or know that the offering existed.
This was achieved by code added to the robots.txt file that instructs Google Search not to index or follow a site. After the reporting and uproar, TurboTax maker Intuit removed the offending line so that the truly free tax filing software appears online.
Last week, the consortium of companies agreed to no longer engage in the deceptive practice. These changes will be implemented in time for the 2020 filing season.
FFI Members are prohibited from engaging in any practice that would cause the Member’s Free File Landing Page to be excluded from an organic internet search.
The IRS also received additional assurances, like standardizing what the software is called: “IRS Free File program delivered by (Member company name or product name).” More importantly, the US revenue service can now create its own online filing system.
Under the previous arrangement, the IRS agreed to not offer a direct system, which most other countries have, in return for third-party companies agreeing to provide free services.
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