Saturday, May 06, 2006

User Unfriendly

Yesterday's story in the Los Angeles Times about how a laudable state-supported software program to improve the online filing experience of low-income residents is being thwarted by corporate "competitors" is a classic parable about the workings of Virtualpolitik. It also illustrates the dangers of letting private companies get a lock on public interests, as Siva Vaidhyanathan and other experts on digital culture and critical information studies have argued.

"Maker of Tax Software Opposes State Filing Help" reports that although 96% of those who used California's ReadyReturn system said that they would happily use it again, legislation that would ensure the program's survival is bogged down in Sacramento. The reason? Software giant Intuit, the makers of TurboTax, Quicken, and QuickBooks, has already spent a half a million dollars on lobbying lawmakers. Luckily it appears to have no real, substantive intellectual property claim -- on which it could win in court, but Intuit has been successful thus far with its bogus free market argument. As the Times reports,

"A dynamic, innovative free market is in everybody's interest," said Ed Black, president and chief executive of the Computer and Communications Industry Assn. in Washington, D.C. "That kind of market is interfered with when … government enters as a competitive player. The government always has the advantage."

Intuit wants California to abandon ReadyReturn. As an alternative, the company would make TurboTax available free to low-income taxpayers through a program already in place with the federal government and 20 other states.

The website of upstart ReadyReturn represents a stripped-down, no-nonsense user-friendly portal to low income taxpayers. AB 2905 would allow 50,000 more low-income Californians to try the filing system out. Why aren't they allowed to reach that market? This is particularly ironic, given how truly terrible most government websites are in terms of user-friendliness, as this blog has repeatedly argued.



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