The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, January 07, 2020 1:00 am

March of progress

Pair of developments offer hope in troubled times

Christer Watson

In difficult times, I have always found it helpful to read about positive changes in technology and politics. There are two recent pieces of news about business, technology and competition that give me hope.

The first story involves taxes. The IRS is changing its rules and will be more aggressive in competing with the for-profit tax-preparation industry. The industry is led by Intuit's TurboTax software with about 60% of the market. This software, in its simple version, will use all the standard tax information, such as a W-2 form, to fill out the appropriate IRS paperwork and submit your taxes electronically.

For most low- and middle-income Americans, this process is very simple. Without any complex investments or complex deductions, many people only need something that can copy numbers from one form (e.g., W-2) to another form (e.g. 1040), then follow the long, exact, detailed instructions. This process is almost exactly what computers were invented for.

Somewhat famously, the IRS entered into a formal agreement, last amended in 2018, with the tax-preparation industry. Under that previous deal, the industry would provide a simple, free version of its service to low- and middle-income Americans. In return, the IRS agreed to not build a simple, free service that could compete with the industry.

Mostly because of reporting by Pro Publica, it became known that Intuit was not following the spirit of that deal. For example, Intuit developed two services, TurboTax Free and TurboTax Free File. One was free and the other, surprisingly, was not. Good luck guessing which was which.

Intuit also added code to its free service website that requests that search engines avoid linking to it. This code, usually called a robots.txt file, is typically used to indicate portions of a company website that are for internal use only and not intended for the general public. Using this code to hide a free service from the public is clearly abusing the spirit of the IRS agreement.

The bottom line is that Intuit was spending active effort to confuse and prevent people from using the free service Intuit has promised the IRS to provide. Because of that behavior, the IRS has made two changes to its agreement. First, the free service must be available to search engines and be labeled with the words, “IRS Free File program delivered by X.” Come early April, you should Google that for your free service.

Second, the IRS stopped promising it will not develop its own tax preparation software. Hopefully, that means the IRS will eventually provide pre-filled-out tax forms. For those of us with simple taxes, we could then review them for mistakes, sign the form and send it in.

In similar news, a bill has been signed that should reduce robocalls. The law requires phone companies to start using a new, standardized way of quickly identifying where phone calls start. The technology, called STIR/SHAKEN, involves how information is passed from one phone company to another as a phone call is connected. As phone companies start using the new technology, they will be able to trace problematic calls in minutes. Using current technology, it can takes weeks or months. This dramatic change will allow phone companies to quickly mark problematic telemarketers and block them from making excessive, abusive calls.

Additionally, phone companies are required by the new law to provide the blocking technology to all customers, instead of offering it as an upcharge.

The bill was very bipartisan. It passed the Senate 97-1. The one senator voting against it? Rand Paul, R-Kentucky.

The phone system used to be a wonderful service where you could contact anyone else connected. The system worked, in part, because we could depend on a phone call being answered. Now, however, most people – 70% in a recent survey – do not answer their phone unless they recognize the calling number. That represents a broken system. Once this technology is sufficiently rolled out, hopefully we will have a telephone system that works again.

I think there is a broader lesson in these two stories. Progress is still possible in times such as these. I would personally still prefer progress in slowing climate change, but I'll take some comfort in these smaller, positive changes.


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this column for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.

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