A few weeks ago, ProPublica reported that Congress was ready to pass a bill barring the IRS from ever creating a competitor program to services like TurboTax, making permanent a deal struck between tax preparers and the IRS that allows them to hawk their own services to taxpayers who should be able to file for free. You will be shocked to hear that many of those taxpayers end up unnecessarily shelling out for those services, despite the fact that they earn little enough—as much as $60,000—to qualify for free filing.
Today, ProPublica reveals yet another disgraceful trick that TurboTax (and competitor H&R Block) uses to squeeze money out of middle-and-low income Americans: It hides its free file page results from Google search results.
It’s a simple technical trick, but as ProPublica points out, one that has to be done on purpose. By adding a robots.txt file to the free version page’s code, it blocks Google from linking to the page in search results—if you were an eligible taxpayer searching for “free file,” for example. This is the same way that some sites block web archiving services like the Wayback Machine from saving their pages, though in 2017 they said they planned to stop honoring robots.txt files.
Though TurboTax blocked its FreeFile pages from Google, the pages that lead taxpayers to the paid versions are allowed in Google results.
Intuit, the company that makes TurboTax, has essentially created a hidden parallel version of its service to honor the requirement that it allow taxpayers who qualify to file for free to do so, while making it almost impossible to actually follow. It is the tax version of the Nathan For You episode where an electronics store offers TVs for one dollar—if customers wear a tuxedo, crawl through a tiny door, and face an alligator.
Here, I have made some memes to explain this to you:
Hope that explains it.
Intuit spends millions on lobbying each year to keep this scam running. Other countries don’t even make you file your taxes yourself, but in the United States, there’s a government-sanctioned program by which companies can trick poorer taxpayers into paying them money, which they then spend on lobbying to keep the whole thing going. Neat!