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Finding free online tax filing should be easier this year for millions of Americans.
The IRS announced significant changes Monday to its deal with the tax prep software industry. Now companies are barred from hiding their free products from search engines such as Google, and a years-old prohibition on the IRS creating its own online filing system has been scrapped.
The addendum to the deal, known as Free File, comes after ProPublica's reporting this year on how the industry, led by TurboTax maker Intuit, has long misled taxpayers who are eligible to file for free into paying.
Under the nearly two-decade-old Free File deal, the industry agreed to make free versions of tax filing software available to lower- and middle-income Americans. In exchange, the IRS promised not to compete with the industry by creating its own online filing system. Many developed countries have such systems, allowing most citizens to file their taxes for free. The prohibition on the IRS creating its own system was the focus of years of lobbying by Intuit. The industry has seen such a system as an existential threat. Now, with the changes to the deal, the prohibition has been dropped.
The addendum also expressly bars the companies from "engaging in any practice" that would exclude their Free File offerings "from an organic internet search." ProPublica reported in April that Intuit and H&R Block had added code to their Free File pages that hid them from Google and other search engines, diverting many users to the companies' paid products.
"The improved process will make Free File stronger and give taxpayers another reason to consider this valuable software option," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement. The agency hopes the changes will make the free option more accessible for taxpayers in the 2020 filing season, he said.
Under the new rules, participating companies also have to standardize the naming convention of their Free File version as "IRS Free File program delivered by [product name]." In the past, many tax filers reported being confused by the difference between, for example, TurboTax Free and TurboTax Free File.
In a blog post on the Intuit website, the company said, "Intuit strongly supports these changes to the Free File program and associated Free File offerings because they increase the focus on the taxpayer experience."
Intuit faces multiple ongoing lawsuits and investigations into whether the company deceived customers. The company has said such accusations are baseless.