June 27, 2019

#144 Dark Pattern

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All


PJ VOGT: From Gimlet this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt. So my absolute favorite TV show of all time is this prank show called Nathan For You.

NATHAN FOR YOU: My name is Nathan Fielder, and I graduated from one of Canadian’s top business schools with really good grades…

PJ: So Nathan claims to be this brilliant business consultant but really every single time he shows up to help, he has these suggestions that are just comedic, absurd, and completely morally bankrupt.

So my favorite episode is the gas station episode. Um, Nathan tells the owner of this gas station that he’s gonna get him way more business and the way they’re gonna do it is that for one day only, gas is gonna be $1.75. A buck seventy five with a rebate. A rebate that has to be hand delivered. To a box. At an extremely remote location.  

NATHAN: About an hour and a half drive from Savan Gas, in the middle of the Angeles National Forest, the peak of Mount Chilleo is only accessible by foot...

PJ: There are diehards who actually take him up on this, and what they learn when they get there, is that even then, to find the rebate box, they’re gonna have to solve a series of riddles.

NATHAN: I’ve been resting for a million years, but I never sleep. I’m a kind of music. But out here, I do not make a peep.

GUESTS: Wind wood winds… is it the wind? Is it wind?

NATHAN: It is not wind.

GUEST: Rock! 

NATHAN: Yes. Great! OK. All right so the next riddle is under a rock. 

PJ: It’s a multiple day camping trip. They sleep in tents overnight. 

And at the end, they all go home without having gotten their 15 bucks back.  


I think the reason I keep coming back to this show, is because I feel like it distills down to its purest form, this thing that you run into so often in the real world – just these unsolvable, horrible mazes of capitalism, where friendly, smiling people trick you out of your money. 

Lately, I’ve been talking to a reporter who had actually uncovered one of these mazes in real life. But the maze he found, it was just so much bigger. It had trapped so many more people. 

PJ: I know this is like not a quantifiable number but like how many people do you think have fallen for this without even realizing there’s like something to fall for? 

JUSTIN: So we are trying to figure out that number. It’s almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands and probably millions. 

PJ: So that’s Justin Elliott, he’s a reporter at ProPublica. And for the past several months he’s been investigating Intuit, the company that makes TurboTax.  

And since I talked to him, everyone I run into, like friends, strangers, people at the doctor's office, I ask the same questions: did you use TurboTax to file your taxes? And if so, was it free? Or did you pay money? 

Pretty much everyone paid money, and almost none of them should have. They got Nathan For You’d. 

The maze they fell into, a maze that was completely invisible to them – it exists because of this very weird deal that the government made with private industry 16 years ago. The kind of deal that is very hard to imagine happening anywhere else but in America.  


Alright, so to explain, we need to start at this press conference back in 2003, the Bush Era..

MARK FORMAN: I’m Mark Forman, I’m associate director for IT and E-government at the Office of Management and Budget. 

He’s here with some very big news for US taxpayers – Americans are finally going to be able to easily file their taxes via computer. 

 I’m very excited about the launch of the Free File website. It’s really the embodiment of 24 presidential e-government initiatives that were released...

PJ: OK, it’s IRS exciting, not real world exciting. But this was actually a big deal.

MARK: When I took my job 18 months ago, virtually every other major country in the world had the ability for citizens to go online, and freely file their taxes, easily file their taxes, we didn’t.  

PJ: Up until then, most US taxpayers had been either filing their taxes by mail, or over the phone. Now we were finally catching up to basically every other major country in the world. 

Except in those other countries, what happened was their governments just built their own file-your-taxes-for-free websites. The IRS did not think we could pull it off--they thought it was gonna be too expensive and they were already too far behind. 

And so here is what they decided to do instead, they went to 17 different companies, companies that were already making online tax filing services. And they told them, you guys are gonna do this. Americans will not file their taxes online directly to the IRS, they will file them through you. 

And for the the vast majority of Americans who do that you’re gonna provide those services completely for free. 

And the companies agree to do it-- this is a tax industry lobbyist at that same conference. 


GOVERNMENT PERSON: Today, for the first time, more than 60% of all US taxpayers will be able to, for free, prepare and file their taxes online. We are particularly very proud of the coverage of so many low and moderate income Americans by this program. 

PJ: Back then, the bottom 60% of US tax filers were eligible. (today it’s actually the bottom 70%, people who make 66k a year or less.  

JUSTIN: The pitch for this Free File program was basically that this was the kind of best kind of public-private partnership. Industry was just going to offer free tax filing to a lot of people at no cost to the government. So what could go wrong?

PJ: And so why would–why would private companies be really excited to jump in and offer something free?

JUSTIN: Um, so that's a good question. So the principal reason that this Free File deal with the IRS has been so valuable to the industry is that it contains this non-compete clause.

So it contains a promise by the IRS that the IRS will never create their own system that would essentially compete with TurboTax or potentially put TurboTax out of business. 

So the IRS has made this very valuable (odd), extremely strange promise to the industry-- they weren’t gonna compete with them. And in return the industry made this very valuable promise (odd) in return, they agreed to offer their services for free to the lionshare of their potential customers. 

MUSIC — after “potential customers”

So With the deal done, and the companies go about the next step. 

Everybody picks which customers they’re going to not make money off of. Some companies take active-duty military, others take seniors, there’s a bunch of categories, and then they go about building them free tax filing products.

In the years that follow, the IRS keeps it’s promise. It never builds its own website. And the tax companies -- something very surprising with one particular company. Over the years that company grew and grew, making more and more money off of a situation that had seemed designed to stop them from profiting

That company is Intuit.


JUSTIN: Intuit's a Silicon Valley company. It’s down–I believe their headquarters in Mountain View is right next to Google. 

PJ: Got it. 

JUSTIN: Founded in the 1980s actually as personal computers were rising. The founder, this guy Scott Cook, had an idea to create accounting software for personal computers so they make Quickbooks. 

PJ: Did that used to be Quicken


PJ: Got it

JUSTIN: That's a business they started and that's still a big part of their business. And then I believe in the early 90s they acquired a company that made tax software and that became what is now TurboTax. 

PJ: TurboTax has made tons of money for Intuit, roughly 2 billion dollars in revenue last year.

JUSTIN: Scott Cook is now a billionaire. His adult children are equestrians. 

PJ: Their- they ride–their like day job is that they just are equestrians? 

JUSTIN: I don't know if it's a job. 

PJ: Their hobby? 

JUSTIN: I- I’m–I'm not sure if they work actually. They're, you know, they've, they've done very well. 

PJ: Got it. 

PJ: One thing that’s worth saying, Intuit software is really good. Like everyone I know who doesn’t use an accountant or have their parents do their taxes uses it. It’s easy, it’s pretty, it gets better year after year. 

However, that is not what has created a fortune for an elusive billionaire and his equestrian children. Because remember, the service is supposed to be free for most Americans. 


So how did Intuit make money off of free? 

They do offer the free tax filing that the deal said they had to. Their version services active duty military making under 66 grand, as well as civilians who make 34,000 dollars or less. That’s the group of free customers they ended up with.

But they’ve taken that product, and they’ve hidden it at the end of a maze -- they don’t make people hike a mountain, or answer a series of riddles. But they’ve made it so that it’s almost impossible to find.

It starts just with how the thing is named - it actually has sort of has two names.  

JUSTIN: TurboTax Free File which for some reason they have also branded as TurboTax Freedom. 

PJ: They're the same thing though? 

JUSTIN: TurboTax Free File and TurboTax Freedom are the exact same thing. 

PJ: Justin showed it to me.

PJ: OK. So this is it. This is the actual Free File website. It’s like– 

JUSTIN: Yeah. Yeah, exactly which is virtually identical to the normal TurboTax 

PJ: It's nice. It's like light blue background. There's a, there's a cheerful clip-art guy who's saying, “Let's start with your personal info. We'll gather some basic info about you and the people in your life.” And this, if I use this program, it would really really actually let me file my taxes for free? 

JUSTIN: Right. You could follow this through to the end and as long as you made under the income cap, this would truly be free.  

PJ: So that's the website that Intuit, because of their agreement with the government, has to offer. However, there's no rule banning them from coming up with their own extremely similarly-named product that any reasonable person would confuse with Free File. And that is TurboTax Free. 

JUSTIN: Which is the product that the company has thrown huge advertising dollars at.


They have ads where literally all the actors in different situations are just saying the word free over and over again. (PJ laughs) The only–most famous one this year was like a kid at a spelling bee. 

PJ: Can I actually pull it up–? 

JUSTIN: Yeah, sure.

AD TAPE: (commercial plays) Free. Free. Free free.

PJ: It's literally just a spelling bee where they only say the word "free." I didn’t know this, but during tax season, TurboTax spends almost 100 million dollars on TV ads alone. This is one of the things they bought this year.

AD TAPE: Free? Free, free. That’s right. TurboTax Free is free. Free free free free.

JUSTIN: It has like five million views or something I think. 

PJ: Seven million. 

JUSTIN: Oh seven million. 

PJ: The product they’re advertising – is that the free version? 

JUSTIN: It's- it–it depends. 

PJ: If you are feeling confused right now, don’t worry that is absolutely the point. 

Everything you’re about to hear from here on out is incredibly convoluted. It has been designed that way. Because this is a story about people making money by being convoluted on purpose. 

It has taken, not just Justin, but a team of journalists at ProPublica, aided by whistleblowers within Intuit, months to untangle what’s going on here.

PJ: Okay wait, so there’s Free File, there’s Freedom, and there’s Free. Free File–TurboTax Free File and TurboTax Free, different products. 

JUSTIN: Very different products. 

PJ: Okay. 

JUSTIN: Well, the–the software is virtually identical, but whether it’s free or not is very different. 

PJ: Even though (laughs) they all have free in their name. 

JUSTIN: Even though they all have like the letters F, R, E, E, in their–they’ve created this taxonomy of the word “free” that makes it virtually impossible to talk or write about in a clear way. It’s actually been very challenging to write about because like, how do you use the word “free”?


PJ: Alright. TurboTax Free File slash TurboTax Freedom, those are the ones that if you’re eligible to use them, they’re always free. TurboTax Free, despite what all the ads say, is only free under very specific circumstances. It’s free if you have what Intuit calls “simple” tax forms. Like if you turn in just a W-2, that’s “simple”. 

Here are people whose taxes, according to Intuit, are not simple: freelancers, anybody filing forms for student loans, mortgage interest, childcare costs. Basically, most people who require any kind of second form will learn that their taxes are not simple, which means they will end up paying somewhere between 60 and two hundred bucks for their free tax filing. 

And Justin said that their website is designed to push you into TurboTax Free, whether you should be there or not. 

JUSTIN: Imagine yourself in, you know, April 10th. 

PJ: And I just go to Turbotax.com. Oh, OK. So the first thing it says is “Free Guaranteed. Zero dollars federal, zero dollars state, zero dollars to file. Easily and accurately file your simple tax returns for FREE.” All in caps. “See why it's free.” And then there's a–

JUSTIN: Right. There's a picture of like a smiling woman holding–looks like she got like a thirty one hundred dollar refund, which I've never gotten personally. 

PJ: Yeah. And she has a new iPad that it's–is displaying it. She looks super happy. 

JUSTIN: Right. So–

PJ: Wait just to walk me through. If I click “See why it's free.” It says, “Is TurboTax Free Edition really free? Yes. We guarantee you'll pay nothing to file your simple federal and state taxes.”

JUSTIN: The word simple is doing a lot of work there.

PJ: Right 

JUSTIN: So if you have other forms, TurboTax will tell you at the end of the process where you've gone through after clicking free that actually you have to pay for TurboTax Deluxe or Turbo Tax Premier in order to file. 

PJ: And they do that once you're done? 

JUSTIN: They do it towards the very end, yeah. 

PJ: Meanwhile, TurboTax Free File, the one that is income based and the one that doesn’t care how complicated your forms are, there’s no mention of it on the homepage. Even if you scroll all the way to the bottom.

JUSTIN: There’s a whole–see there’s a whole list of products. I think it says like–

PJ: TurboTax Free Edition, Deluxe, Premier, Self-Employed, Military Tax Prep, all TurboTax Live products, Live Basic, Live Deluxe, Live Premier, Live Self-Employed.

JUSTIN: There’s like 16 things on there with the notable exception of TurboTax FreeFile.

PJ: God.

PJ: So Justin and his team figured, “That’s fine. We’ll just find this thing using Google.”

JUSTIN: We decided to play the role of somebody who's even more of a tax nerd, who not only knows about IRS Free File, but actually literally knows the brand name of the TurboTax Free File edition, which is TurboTax Freedom. 

PJ: Yeah. 

JUSTIN: So we Google TurboTax Freedom. Right? And almost the entire page when you google this..is a series of ads and the top one is turbo tax free file program right, 

[And then the top hit is an ad that TurboTax has bought on Google that says “TurboTax Free File program”. Right? ]

So we're like, “OK, great. We're in luck. Finally we found the sort of Holy Grail.”

PJ:They thought they’d found the holy grail, but what Google took them to.. was not actually the TurboTax Free File website. It was like a trick door in front of the Free File website.

JUSTIN: So there's two buttons on this page. There's an orange button and a blue button. And can you read what they say?

PJ: Yeah. So the orange button says: “See if you qualify.” 

JUSTIN: Yeah. 

PJ: And then the blue button says, “Start for free.”

JUSTIN: Right. So which would you click?

PJ: Oh definitely “start for free”. Also just cause it's the blue button. 

JUSTIN: Exactly so–and also it gets even more interesting if you look at the little text above it. The “start for free” text says like, “We'll find the perfect product for you.” You can tell me–

PJ: Yeah. So “start for free” says “We're here to help you get your taxes done right. Starting with the perfect TurboTax product for you.” And then the “see if you qualify” is like, “2018 TurboTax Free File program qualifications. You earn thirty four thousand dollars or less adjusted gross income AGI or active duty military in 2018 with AGI 66000 or less. Or if you qualify for the Earned Income Credit EIC.”

JUSTIN: Right. So just pausing on that for a second. The, the “see if you qualify” button is throwing around terms like “adjusted gross income”. Again, no normal person knows what that is. 

PJ: Or you can click the nice blue button which also has a smiling mother with her child on her shoulders next to it. 

JUSTIN: The nice blue button, which has the word free on it. So it turns out that if you click the blue free button that is actually another off ramp to the–not the Free File edition but the Free edition in which depending on your forms, you're gonna have to pay. 

PJ: Oh my God. Oh my God. It's just like there should be- it's not–it's fine for companies to try to trick you. But there should be like one safe road. 

JUSTIN: Yeah. 


PJ: After the break……

What happens when you try to get you money back….


PJ: So all the nudges and skullduggery that Intuit uses to push people away from FreeFile, towards paying them money, Justin told me there’s a term for all that. 

It’s called a dark pattern. Whether you realize it or not, you have probably run into a bunch of these. It’s when you use a website or piece of software that is designed through all sorts of sneaky ways to lead you to a choice that you probably don’t want to make. 


Unsubscribe buttons hidden in four-point, grayed out font? That’s a dark pattern. Apps that get you to accidentally pay for a monthly subscription by putting the OK button where your finger expects to find the Cancel button? Dark pattern. 

But the dark patterns swirling around TurboTax are much more diabolical.

Like, there was this one thing Justin couldn’t figure out. He actually found this one way to get to the TurboTax Free File website. It turned out there was a directory on IRS.gov that had a link to it. But he didn’t understand why he couldn’t just get to the TurboTax Free File website directly from Google.

JUSTIN: No matter what we Google, “TurboTax Free File edition”, “TurboTax Freedom”, “TurboTax IRS Free File”. The actual TurboTax Free File Edition was never appearing. Never. 


PJ: Huh. 

JUSTIN: Like not on the first page not on the fifth page. So we were like, what is going on there? So after we published one of our early stories, some SEO experts on the Internet, flagged for us that TurboTax Intuit had actually added code to the TurboTax Free File Website telling Google not to show that page ever. 

PJ: That is dastardly. Robots dot txt? 

JUSTIN: It’s–a robot's tag.

PJ: Which just says, like you put it on a website if you’re like, Google don’t index this. 



JUSTIN: One of the things that was striking to us about this hiding the Free File page from Google, was that it really clearly speaks to intent. Right? This is not a passive thing like, “Well, we put, you know, we have a certain number of advertising dollars and we're putting them mostly towards the Free edition instead of the Free File edition.” This is literally something that you have to actively add. It's not the default. 

PJ: Yeah. 

JUSTIN: So they–somebody at Intuit actively put code on the page saying, “Don't appear on Google.”

PJ: If Justin’s right, and Intuit WAS hiding the Free File program on purpose, it seems to have worked. Remember, 70% of Americans are eligible for this. In 2005, soon after the program was launched, 5.1 million people tried it. Last year, that number was down to around 2.7 million.

And Justin says he’s talked to people who work at Intuit, some of them contacted him because they’re so disturbed about how things are run. One person told him a story about a meeting they’d gone to, where this naive soul had made a suggestion. 

They pointed out that once they knew their customer’s income level, they just put a pop up in front of them that routed them to the Free File software. Justin said that person got laughed out of the room. It was like the person who shows up at the carnival and suggests fixing the claw machine so that people can grab the toys more easily.  

JUSTIN: You know, it would undermine the entire business model. This is a very lucrative business. Sasan, the CEO, made like 12 million dollars last year, and that was before he was even CEO. I think the CEO made 20 million. 

PJ: Oh my God. But also it’s sorta crazy because even if they were like, “OK, we’re only responsible for helping people who are making like less than 34,000.” 


PJ: There’s still tons of people that they could profit off of.

JUSTIN: Yeah but when you look at the–we don’t know the sort of income distribution of Intuit’s customers, but we do know the income distribution of the country. And so, turns out something like a quarter of the country makes under $34,000. So if all those people started really using the Free File product, it would erase a huge chunk, if not all of their profits. 


AUTO VOICE: Thank you for calling TurboTax, your call may be monitored and recorded. 

PJ: After Justin started publishing these stories, a lot of his readers started calling TurboTax and saying, “give me my money back.” 

This is a call recorded last month by a guy in Virginia who made about 16 grand last year.

GRAD STUDENT: I'm calling to request a refund on the services that I paid for but I should have been able to do the free to file but I was directed to the Free Edition for TurboTax when I was filing my taxes. 

TURBOTAX EMPLOYEE: (sigh) Give me a moment..

JUSTIN: For about a week it worked. I was getting a whole series of very gratifying emails from people who make 15, 20 thousand dollars who got their hundred fifty bucks back and were very happy. And then the company shut it down. They set up a whole special sort of customer service SWAT team. It was actually called the ProPublica team. 

PJ: Oh my gosh. That’s kind of flattering.

JUSTIN: Yeah. 

PJ: (laughs)

PJ: This new customer service SWAT team, they were very, very good at not giving people refunds. And they basically had one tactic – sew more confusion.

TURBOTAX EMPLOYEE: We are going to have to pull up a screen share because the Freedom Edition is through the IRS. Free File is through us. 

PJ: Is that true?

JUSTIN: Not really. 

PJ: OK. 

JUSTIN: But it gets worse. 

PJ: OK. 


TURBOTAX EMPLOYEE: I can, I can tell you that through us it is forms that are needed, through the IRS. It is income based. So we are not able to grant you a refund but I can point out your forms to you on what forms might've bumped you into a higher product. 

GRAD STUDENT: So that's not my understanding for free to file if you made a–under a certain level of income then–

TURBOTAX EMPLOYEE: That is Freedom. 

GRAD STUDENT: OK. So your agreement with the IRS is that under a certain level of income you're allowed to file for free. 

[pop sound]

 TURBOTAX EMPLOYEE: You would have to use that product. 

GRAD STUDENT: OK. That's what I intended to use. But because I'm finding out through ProPublica articles now that you–that TurboTax is intentionally making those very difficult to find or use. 

TURBOTAX EMPLOYEE: We are not making them difficult to find. 

GRAD STUDENT: There's coding literally to say that it's not going to show up in search engines. 

TURBOTAX EMPLOYEE: And I guarantee you read that on the ProPublica site didn't ya? 

GRAD STUDENT: I really did. 

TURBOTAX EMPLOYEE: Yeah. They're not going to be honest about that stuff because we have no power over Google or anything like that. It is up to the IRS on how they want to advertise that if they want to advertise it at all. 

PJ: Do you think that this agent is intentionally lying or confused? 

JUSTIN: Um I do–I think probably–I think actually this agent is just confused. But this was not isolated. I mean we heard from like at least 20 people who were told by agents that ProPublica was fake news. But the, the core thing the agent’s getting wrong here is that he keeps talking about the IRS running TurboTax Free File which is–

PJ: Yeah. 

JUSTIN: Which is not true. It’s very far from the truth. And there’s sort of an irony there because Intuit has lobbied for years to make sure the government has nothing to do with tax filing. 

PJ: Intiut couldn’t make anyone available for an interview with us for this piece. Their spokesman did point over email that they have gotten rid of the confusing Freedom brand name, Free File is just called Free File now. He didn’t answer any questions about their search practices, but since Justin’s stories came out, it is now possible to find TurboTax Free File using Google.

Ultimately though, while they’ve made some changes, the company believes that they’ve done nothing wrong.

SASAN GOODARZI: i want you to know that i take these challenges personally, and i know you do too, and i want you to hear our story directly form me

PJ: This is Sasan Goodarzi. He’s the CEO of Intuit. He’s addressing the company in an internal video rebutting ProPublica’s reporting.

SASAN: Over the past 5 years, tens of millions of consumers filed their taxes for free, using one of our free offerings. That is more than every tax rep company combined.

PJ: Justin said he reached out to Intuit for clarification on what they meant by free, like really free or used a free service but paid something for it. He hasn’t heard back. 

Anyway, Goodarzi says everything the company did that Justin said was meant to confuse people was actually meant to help them. He says delisting pages from Google is something businesses do all the time. 

SASAN: Having pages not rank is standard Internet practice and it's especially helpful in this instance where our primary goal is to get people the right product through educational content.

PJ: It feels like the real reason he is there is because he has to rally Intuit’s 9,000 employees, people who have just been told that their business is amoral and he tells them, the real enemy here is ProPublica.  

SASAN: Each of these articles have been written and published in the context of a specific, wider political agenda. That agenda is to create a centralized, government system of pre-filled tax returns.


PJ: What he’s saying is basically the unsaid argument at the center of this whole Free File, public/private strange arrangement. This arrangement that has lasted almost 2 decades. What he’s saying is that you cannot trust the government to handle your taxes. They’re going to screw it up. They’re going to rip you off. It’ll never work.

And it’s hard to argue with that because we’ve never tried it. But, when Justin started tweeting out links to his articles about this, he heard from an unexpected audience. International readers. Who were tweeting at him saying things like, “I fundamentally do not understand the problem you’re writing about.”

JUSTIN: I’ve heard from people from other countries who are literally confused by the idea of like, what does it even mean to do your taxes and also pay money for it, that’s confusing. In Australia we, you know, it takes like 10 seconds, and that kind of thing. 

PJ: It’s such a weird like bong hit of an idea that you’re just like, don’t know what that is. OK, I’m looking at the tweet thread now. So it’s like, Japan, employees don’t have to file a tax return. Uh.. UK, I don’t have to file taxes, my employer is required to do this for me monthly, and I only have one source of income. Australia, done electronically, almost entirely pre-populated by the government. Netherlands, five to ten minutes. Somebody from Slovenia deleted their tweet, so I don’t know what’s going on there. 

JUSTIN: (laughs)

PJ: Philippines, employer does it for me. South Africa, online system’s pre-populated. Mexico, it’s free, 20 minutes. But yeah, it’s not just the fancy countries that always do stuff better than us, where it’s like, yeah we have PlayStation 5s in our prisons and nobody does murder. It’s everywhere. 

JUSTIN: Right.

PJ: In theory, we could build a similar system. Yeah, the agreement says the IRS isn’t allowed to do it, but that agreement comes up for renewal every few years. We could just decide to be more like Sweden or Mexico. Except we have an obstacle that those countries don’t have. Which is that every year, Intuit makes more money, and that gives them more money to spend lobbying to ensure that lawmakers keep the agreement the way it is.

In fact this year, they went a step further.


In April, they got language inserted into this bill called The Taxpayer First Act. It made the arrangement permanent, got the IRS’s non-compete put into a bill. 

NEWS ANCHOR: Alright last week the House passed the Taxpayer First Act of 2019 with bipartisan support. It has a provision that would make it illegal for the IRS to launch it’s own free online tax filing system. 

PJ: The bill passed the Democratic House, went over to the Republican Senate where everybody knew what was gonna happen next. It was a done deal.  

POLITICAL ANALYST: This is a bipartisan bill that passed with broad support in the House, probably will have the same effect in the Senate. And then Trump will sign it, of course.

PJ: But that’s not what happened. 

What happened was that the ProPublica stories came out. People got mad. And the Senate did this thing nobody expected. They rewrote the bill, they took out the part permanently banning the IRS from making their own software.  

PJ: Were you surprised to see that happen?

JUSTIN: Uh, yes actually, because usually journalism has no effect (laughs). Um, so yeah, we were surprised. But basically all that means is that it’s just sort of status quo ante. Like, it’s not like ending the program or anything, it’s just not putting it into law. 

PJ: So we’re in this weird place where on the one hand, at any moment, the IRS could decide, screw this agreement, we’re making our own website. On the other hand, it feels like that will never happen. And so we live in this status quo.

Next spring, we’ll all sit down to file our taxes. And we’ll take information that in most cases the government already has, how much money our employer pays us, and because we don’t trust the government, we will take that information and give it to a private company instead. They’ll charge us some money, and then they’ll turn it over to the government, who already has it. It might seem weird, it might not make a lot of sense, but we’re Americans and for now, that is the system we’ve decided on. 


Justin Elliot is a reporter for ProPublica. His investigation into Intuit has been done alongside a team – Lucas Waldron, Paul Kiel, Kengo Tsutsumi, Ariana Tobin, and Meg Marco. 

If you’d like to try Free File, there's a link to it on our show notes. 

And Justin says, if anyone who works at Intuit hears this and wants to talk to him, his email is justin @ pro publica . org. 

Reply All is hosted by me PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. The show’s produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, and Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our editor is Tim Howard. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact-checking this week by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Emily Rostek. Special thanks this week to Joe Bankman, Mark Forman, Brad Bass, and Jeff Kupfer. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Matt Lieber is an early morning bike ride. You can listen to our show on Spotify on wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in two weeks.