20 Years Of 'Half-Life'

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Inevitably, in the course of writing anything remotely nostalgic, I get a knot in my stomach. A little over a year ago, I published a 10th anniversary piece looking back at "The Orange Box," a bundle of games released by Valve Software in 2007 that included "Half-Life 2" and its sequel episodes, along with the original "Portal" and "Team Fortress 2." I had a lot of feelings on the occasion, but dragging them to the surface and putting them on the page was not easy. Since I write and curate writing online for a living, I always feel a pressure to add to the conversation — after all, every piece generated for an anniversary is a chance for fresh analysis and meaningful introspection, even if they don't all get there.

… hence the knot in my stomach. How do you know what's worth adding? Staring down today's 20th anniversary of "Half-Life" a few months ago, I knew I wanted to put something together, but since writing that piece a year ago, the state of my own feelings on the series and video games as a whole haven't changed all that much, and I think individuals should only get to do one soul-searching-on-an-anniversary piece per pop culture touchstone anyway (so if you care at all about what I think about Valve's status as a commerce behemoth or the prospect of a new "Half-Life" sequel, go read what I wrote a year ago).

Instead, I decided to carve out a space for a variety of perspectives on "Half-Life," from people who've both gotten a lot out of the series and who've put a lot of themselves back into culture surrounding it. Presented here, lightly edited and arranged by subject, are excerpts from interviews with eight individuals with unique relationships to "Half-Life" and/or games (like "Counter-Strike") and fan communities that spun off from it. Those interviewees are:



"Half-Life" was released for the PC on November 19, 1998 (don't believe the game's Steam page, it gets the anniversary wrong now). Plenty has been said about the first impression left by the game's intro tram ride through the sprawling Black Mesa Research Facility and how it impacted the direction subsequent first-person shooters took — but naturally, everybody's first experience of the game is different. Some came to "Half-Life" later on, and some were, well, surprised with it early:

So "Half-Life" was interesting for me, because it was originally meant to be a birthday present for me. It's a silly story: My birthday's in January. I have two younger brothers, and my mum took my two brothers out to go shopping with her. She said "let's get Dave a birthday present." My little brother chose "Half-Life." I think had seen it magazines but I hadn't really paid any attention to it.

This was maybe late November. So they bought it, but my brother being my brother, he couldn't hold onto it for two months until my birthday. He had to open it up that day, and as soon as my mum and my brother found out [they went] "okay, you have to give it to Dave now." I remember we basically played for the rest of the weekend, just me on the computer and my brothers on either side.

—Dave Johnston

When "Half-Life" was first released, November 19, 1998, I was ten years old at the time. That was actually only five days after my birthday. But, that had actually not been the first time I'd played the game. I'd played it about a month earlier because Valve released a thing called "Half-Life Day One", a demo for the game which included roughly the first thirty percent of the single player, up to "We've Got Hostiles."

I remember at the time that, the way [the demo] was officially released was along with hardware — video cards and things like that. The way I got it was, my older brother received a burned disc from a friend at school, that basically was a pirate release[…] it was unlike anything I'd seen before, from a technology standpoint, graphically… it was just really far beyond any other games or first-person shooters I'd known at that point.

—Rikki D'Angelo

I would never kill the NPCs, the scientists or the security guards. What a terrible thing to do! It never crossed my mind. Then I saw my friends playing it, and they were just blasting them away. Leading them into barnacles, shooting them in the face. I was like "what are you doing?!" I was horrified!

—Ross Joseph Gardner

After I went to college, I played a lot of "Half-Life 2" over the course of about a year because the first time I picked it up, I think I got to Ravenholm… and I got so scared that I put the game down and was like "nobody told me this turns into a horror game halfway through, no thank you." I didn't play it for many months, and then at the end of the year I thought "I gotta play it because it's famous."[…] I was very glad I did get back to it.

I played the original "Half-Life" in college as well. Honestly, after playing "Half-Life 2" I started thinking a lot harder about what I was experiencing in games, and about what they were doing to achieve certain effects in me. I was starting to think that I could work in games as a career, so when I played "Half-Life" I played it with a lot more focus and intention than when I played "Half-Life 2." For me, playing "Half-Life" was exploring the toolbox a video game storyteller has.

—Laura Michet



The storyline of the "Half-Life" series, largely devised by writer Marc Laidlaw, is a bit of a genre grab-bag and riddled with lacunae. The first game's inciting incident and climactic excursion to a dimension between universes set the stage for the sequel's conflict between scientist-led human rebels and the Combine, a force bent on colonizing parallel universes. "Half-Life" is particularly good at implying there's more going on in the world than we see in the games, which could be a potent prompt for fan creations (even if pursuing wholly-different settings than the games' assets were suited for was considerably more difficult):

Valve was aiming to do a lot more than a first-person shooter. They were using "Half-Life" as this experimental test bed — they weren't just trying to have the player fight bad guys. They were trying to create this ecosystem, where the player would interact with monsters, but [the monsters] would interact with each other in specific and unique ways. It's basically humans versus aliens, but there are humans that'll fight other humans and aliens that'll fight other aliens, as well as alien interactions that aren't hostile. It gave more of a liveliness to these things; they weren't just mindless creatures, they were autonomous. You could say they had their own agendas in the world.

—Rikki D'Angelo

With "Half-Life 2," the mods that you saw… it's incredibly difficult to create new content. That's why people go back to City 17, the coast, whatever. Then you have some examples like "Minerva," or "Research & Development," that did carve out their own niche with existing materials to tell something new and interesting. I suppose that — this is a little controversial — I always thought it was a shame that projects like "Black Mesa," the "Opposing Force" remake or whatever… that so much talent went into [revisiting old material]. I think about what it would've looked like if they'd gone in new directions rather than go back to Black Mesa[…] "Half-Life 2" is just a good science fiction story. It doesn't have incredibly deep or rich themes, it's just exceptionally well-told with realistic and compelling characters, and an incredibly powerful world that had an impact on a lot of people. So for us, making "A Place in the West," it was like: what is it about the world of "Half-Life" — Black Mesa, the Combine, the role of science — can we explore in a new way, can we bring a new texture to them?

—Ross Joseph Gardner

"Half-Life 2" is a slice of sci-fi that isn't really reflected much in books or movies, y'know? It's this run-down, ecological disaster Eastern Europe. There's science fiction stuff but there's not a lot of humans interacting with the science fiction stuff — it's these big, heartless edifices and faceless alien dudes running around, the bad guys are giant grubs… it's a very unique look and a unique way of combining that with horror. The difference between Ravenholm and some other parts of the game is very incongruous; Ravenholm is a game about throwing buzzsaws at people. There's no other part of the game that has the exact vibe that that level does.

—Laura Michet



Like id Software ("Doom," "Quake," "Wolfenstein") and 3D Realms ("Duke Nukem 3D") before it, Valve allowed players to make new content for "Half-Life" by releasing the same tools used to develop the game alongside it. Game modding, then, was nothing new, but the fidelity granted by "Half-Life's" engine — a heavily modified version of id's "Quake 2" engine, later called GoldSrc — along with the comparatively realistic setting of "Half-Life" compelled many players to pick up the tools and start creating, a trend that would continue with "Half-Life 2" and Valve's improved Source Engine:

I played "Counter-Strike" with my friends, but then I found out it was built on top of this other game called "Half-Life", and then I was hooked.

Like a lot of "Counter-Strike" players, me and my friends got bored of playing the same maps over and over, or wanted to make our own variants of existing maps… so I started looking up online tutorials on how to make "Counter-Strike" maps. But then I realized I liked imagining the stories of the maps more, like thinking about how the counter-terrorists got there or why the terrorist team was there, etc. Then after I played "Half-Life," I started to make more single player maps, and got more involved with modding communities like The Snarkpit and Mapcore. The Snarkpit was really great actually, it was a custom-built message board where you could upload your maps and run contests, it helped facilitate a lot of community and connections. Sometimes I still end up running into ex-Snarkpit members in real-life too!1

—Robert Yang

"Half-Life" is the first game I ever really made a level for — but they weren't, like, good levels. I'd mess around with all the stuff entities would do and try to get my brother to play them with me. I had one level where I had a really ugly, brushed-out2 plane or two. You'd sit in the plane and it'd fly around, but it was just on rails like the "Half-Life" intro train. You'd control it a little bit and try to shoot the other guy out of his plane, but if anybody succeeded, the train [entity]3would still be going, so you'd have to wait until the plane landed for a sec, or chase after it and try to jump on the wing. That's pretty much the coolest thing I did on "Half-Life," but I didn't get heavily into [modding] until "Half-Life 2."

—Joe Wintergreen

"Half-Life" has become more of a tool for ordinary people's personal expression, in a way, than almost any other game I can think of. There are plenty of people out there who want to know what happens to Gordon and who revere Valve as the creators of the game, but I think there's probably as many people out there for whom the greatest impact of the franchise might be mods, or "Garry's Mod", or a game that they made… or a cool YouTube video. Remember when all those special-effects [heavy] YouTube videos came out where people dressed up as survivors in the world of "Half-Life?" "Half-Life" has become a thing that people use to tell their own story — or I hope that more people have seen it this way, I have no proof that it's the case — but I like that it's a game where many people seem to be able to break out of that cycle of revering and treasuring a commercial product, and have been able to take ownership of it, and disassemble it, rip it to pieces and use those pieces to make themselves happy and teach them things.

Laura Michet

Even when I was making "Doom" maps, I was always very rooted in the real world. The first maps that I made were my school, not just because that's what everyone does as their first map, but because that's the sort of architecture that interests me. I like basing things on what I see, whereas I never really had the imagination that some people had to make "Quake" maps, these fantastic fortresses and things[…] Because "Half-Life" was based in reality, to a degree, I found that was something I could actually contribute to. There were clear rules in the environment and world they had created that I could expand upon.

Of course, the other advantage was that, at the time, I could make an entire map by myself and it could look as good as a map made by the professionals. It was all [based in] materials and brushes — there wasn't a huge amount of detail that was required. These days, every new map has to be unique looking. It involves teams of artists, teams of designers, sound artists even, pouring over a map for weeks and weeks while trying to deliver everything that the engine can deliver, that detail computers are capable of now. In that era, it was just kids like me making stuff in an evening or a weekend. If we knew what we were doing, you couldn't tell the difference between what we had made and something by the company[…]

I love making things out of brushes — that sort of coarse, brute control over things. I don't like going into Maya or 3ds Max to make something. I like seeing what I can make [with brushes]. Even creating the arches in Dust; that was a challenge! These days it seems like that's child's play. Of all the things I enjoyed about map design, I liked tackling these 3D geometric puzzles, trying to figure out how to build them.

—Dave Johnston

What steered me to "Half-Life 2" [for machinima] was, directly, the tools. I knew I wanted to have faceless characters so I wouldn't have to animate faces, so somebody in a helmet or something. It could've just as easily been in something like "Doom 3" at the time, but I looked at the options available and the Source SDK, say if I wanted somebody to walk over and sit down in a chair, [Source] gave me the most tools to work with out of anything. So that came from a desire to make videos but with no available actors, or budget, really. It sort of propelled me down learning the Source engine to animate things. Even in my first episode of "Civil Protection," I think a few weeks in I was ready to quit. But I had spent so much time on it, it would've been more unsatisfying to quit than to just keep going and finish it.

—Ross Scott



For every completed "Half-Life" mod or even "Counter-Strike" map, there have got to be dozens more that were abandoned in an unfinished state. Often, teams would get too focused on a hypothetical list of features, a ballooning story outline or on putting out "professional" grade assets — frequently, they'd get bogged down by chasing all three! Robert Yang wrote a great history of the first-person shooter through the lens of modding culture that touches on how this "inferiority complex" spelled doom for many mods in the 2000s. Not every mod collapsed, and even some of those that did led to positive outcomes down the line:

I joined the Half-Life Improvement Team Forum. They were dedicated to taking all the assets in "Half-Life" and enhancing them in ways similar to what the High Definition Pack had done earlier[… they were aiming] to release what was going to be a mod called "Half-Life Enhanced." That was going to include ragdoll physics, improved particle effects. Improving the models was a big part of what they wanted to do. In retrospect, that mod never did come together, but it brought together a community of a whole lot of people who were improving models in their own way[…] eventually I'd try my own hand at touching up the textures in Photoshop, or compiling improved models for "Half-Life," making it compatible with other mods.

—Rikki D'Angelo

I ended up getting into "Half-Life 2" modding because of Ross [Joseph Gardner]. We actually met working on a mod for "Doom 3," and he dragged me over to "Half-Life 2." The first thing that we started together ended up also being something that was just far too ambitious. The idea was that it was set in Russia, in the Leningrad area, with the idea of this last surviving human city trying to fight off the Combine. We were drawing a lot of parallels with World War II — this "resistance in winter," odds that seemed overwhelming — but yeah, it just ended up being a huge, sprawling story. Plenty of the elements from that are things we've been able to adapt in the comic, which is a big part of why going into comics made sense for us. When it came to curbing ambition, or working really closely with gameplay, there were just areas we weren't really great with. We're more able to work in [comics], where it's more focused on the story that we want to tell. Gameplay always felt like it got in the way; we weren't really coming up with interesting set-pieces. It was always "here are the characters, here's what we want to tell around them."

—Michael Pelletier

When we did "Shotgun Sunrise," I guess I had a rule where… because of how these mod teams would fizzle out and die, I figured it was partly a motivational thing because people's work would get thrown out [so often]. I said if "you make something for this mod, then it's definitely going in the mod, that's the rule. No one's going to shout down your shit. If you make it, it's going in." That's why there's, like, three shotguns.

—Joe Wintergreen



Show me a video game with no strange bugs or "unorthodox" developer solutions and I'll eat a crowbar. The "Half-Life" series has great examples of intentional and unintentional code oddity:

There could be an entire book about doors; read Liz England's excellent post "The Door Problem" for a glimpse of the complexity behind putting a door in a video game. "Half-Life" actually has one of the most lovely door hacks in level design history too… in 1998, their level scripting system didn't let you attach objects to other objects, like you couldn't attach a door to a train. That's a big problem for the intro train sequence of "Half-Life," where it ends with the tram stopping, and the tram door opening. To get around that, the Valve designers force a level change when you arrive at the station. It swaps out your moving train for a fake static train, and a fake static door for a real door. It's kind of brilliant. (The alternative hack would've been to make the door into a second train, that moves perfectly aligned with the main train, but that would've been a mess.)

—Robert Yang

I watched a lot of "Half-Life 2" speedrunning, around when YouTube got more popular. I was always fascinated by these videos of people climbing up walls by hopping on things. So when I was younger, the things about "Half-Life 2" that interested me most were people breaking the game, or who'd render ridiculous and absurd through mistreatment. I enjoyed the story and all that, but I've always been drawn to the weird stuff that people do to it.

—Laura Michet

I actually had someone email me because he was blown away [by a scene]. He worked a lot with the Source Engine and could not figure out what I did: at one point I have the character drop a radio that he picked up. There's no real way to do that, normally, in the Source Engine — or at least there wasn't. So what I did was attach [the radio] as a prop, bring it over and when I had him do the release animation, what I did was kill that prop instantly and then I manually went and had it spawn a physics prop in almost the exact same position, so you couldn't notice. By the time he drops it, it's killing the prop that he had and instantly spawning the physical one that just drops.

But the thing is, in "Half-Life 2," there's a scene where Barney drops a crowbar, and Kleiner sets down a clipboard, so I went "how did they do that?" I looked at the level in Hammer, and they referred to an undocumented function, that I think they coded specifically just for that cutscene, and it wasn't meant to work on anything else. Really, everything was like that. It's like, I'm both bitter about it but at the same time I feel like I had a bit of a trial-by-fire for working in other engines.

—Ross Scott

I often show students some of the C++ source code from "Half-Life," which is available on GitHub now. It's fairly readable, with lots of comments everywhere. Most importantly, it's messy. If you do a search in the "Half-Life" game code, you'll find over 100 instances of the word "hack". That helps my students feel better about their own code. Making games is never perfect or ideal, it's always just about making something work well enough for most of the time.

—Robert Yang



I'm taking these excerpts and shoving them together in the anti-mass spectrometer that is this section. Shoot your beam of personal insight at them and see how they resonate with you… or just keep scrolling for a de_dust cake recipe (no, really):

One thing I really do like about the Source Engine is, it was one of the earlier ones to implement ragdoll physics. When I have an excuse, I certainly use those. The way [the physics] are calculated, when you play back a demo it's never exactly the same, so that can actually lead to some abnormalities — and probably the most fun of any individual element of making episodes is, if I know a character's going to get flung around, I'll play back the demo and have a recording of it and then I might do it five more times and see how the body bounces differently, then pick the one I like the most.

—Ross Scott

I heard on a forum that somebody found out [Valve] would sign stuff if you sent it to them. I thought "well, I don't have anything for them to sign," but because they'd been working with ATI advertise these new graphics cards, I asked "hey, can I get one of those graphics cards, but signed by Gabe Newell and Dario Casali?" They were like "what's your address?" Okaaay… so I sent them my address, and a month later I get this cardboard ATI X800 XT. They'd gotten some cardboard and printed a picture of the graphics card on both sides, and signed it.

—Joe Wintergreen


When I got "Half-Life 2," it was my first time living away from home. I'd just turned 18 and moved across the country. I was living with a friend of mine who's in the games industry as a professional now — we were working through "Half-Life 2" together, and I remember we were going through Ravenholm. It's this small mining town: dark, full of zombies and pretty rubbish… and even though it didn't really look like where I'd grown up, it gave me a weird sense of nostalgia to play through it. I was from a small textile mill town — that was also dark, and full of zombies and looked like rubbish — but it was this weird degree of atmospheric where, even though it's [set in] Eastern Europe, which is objectively nothing like my home, it still felt like I was there. It was such a strange feeling.

Michael Pelletier

Definitely check out Heather Flowers' "EPISTLE 3." It is extremely funny, and the most interesting thing about it is that Heather has never played "Half-Life." It's an exploration of what you learn about "Half-Life" [by] just existing in video games land; all this absorbed, received information about "Half-Life", warped and twisted through someone's weird sense of humor. My favorite thing about it is that every object and person and thing in the game is just a giant white cube. You have to shoot the cubes to figure out what they are — it turns you into this monster that's going around shooting things, which is the perennial critique of "Half-Life": that it's a story-heavy game where your only mode of interaction is shooting.

—Laura Michet

A few weeks ago was my eleventh year at Splash Damage — we call them "Splashiversaries." Just because everyone's been teasing me for years about making Dust, I actually made a Dust cake. So it took me… how many years? 16 years to make a Dust cake, with Dust crates and the bomb spot? I hope that'll stop the teasing.4

—Dave Johnston

 Dave Johnston



God help me if, the day this piece goes live, Valve announces some kind of follow-up to "Half-Life" — on the off-chance, I'm reserving this space to acknowledge how owned I am. Valve's not been all that keen on celebrating big anniversaries in the past, though, so it's not like anyone should have their hopes up. If you're still pining for a sequel, I can't blame you… but I hope this piece helps you appreciate what the games were, rather than get stuck on what might've been. Here's to seeing you up ahead. 

—Mat Olson

Level design isn't this nexus anymore for getting into game development, or even for just creating stuff and sharing it with your friends. You can't knock up a level for "Fortnite" or anything, any current game. You can't just cobble together a "Call of Duty" level anymore and play it with your mates. I think that's a real shame, and it comes from this top-down thing of: right, everyone uses the tools used by this big company, and that company makes tools that work for them, that work because they're rich and huge. They just let the other tools rot and decay. Those are the tools we were using to get into and find the interest they had in working on games. It's the same reason modding isn't as much of a thing anymore… though that's also because you can also make money [with your own game].

—Joe Wintergreen

I do love seeing people's versions of Dust, like versions in "Minecraft" or the "Crysis" games. Having people play your maps is a great feeling — to feel that you've made a thing people really like to play — but to have someone spend their own time recreating it is a whole other level. I'm sure one day, someone will make a proper Dust 3 that will overtake Dust and Dust 2 and I'll be like, "yeah, well done mate, I couldn't do that." It'll happen at some point, surely. I wonder if the map that takes Dust's crown will be a Dust-style map or if it'll be something completely different. The reason they succeeded was because they did that design before anyone else did[…] it might be that ["Counter-Strike: Global Offensive"]5 lends itself better to a different style of map that nobody's quite landed on, or maybe they have but the map hasn't reached that mindshare yet.

—Dave Johnston

A comment I tend to get all the time is surprise that "Half-Life" has all these details, but I don't believe these details have been unnoticed by everyone. There are people out there who've played and noticed one or two of these things — not all of them, of course — but these details, I believe, while they don't make the games what they are on their own, I believe the elevate what's already a strong game to a deeper, more memorable experience[…] I hope these videos give people the opportunity to appreciate the games they're playing more, to really think about all the time and effort that went into them. When someone says "why did they bother putting this in, no one's going to notice" or "what a waste of time," that derides the developers. There are people who notice.

—Rikki D'Angelo

Today, we think of "Half-Life" as an inevitable or obvious success, but it also took some risks that went against the FPS trends at the time. The big FPS games in 1996-1997 were maybe "Quake," "Quake 2," "Duke Nukem 3D" and "Dark Forces 2″… they're all about these big combat arenas, where you start shooting aliens or monsters within the first 30 seconds of the game. Compare that to "Half-Life's" intro sequence in 1998, which is like an 8 minute train ride to work where nothing happens, and then 30-40 minutes later, maybe you get a pistol? That's a pretty big departure from where the rest of the FPS genre was going. If there's going to be another "Half-Life" in the FPS genre ever again, it will have to take similar risks that rethink popular practice in a fresh way, without fear or apology.

—Robert Yang

In the years since "Half-Life 2" came out, the shape of video games has changed so much that, if I want top-quality, experimental, story-focused stuff, I can find that. There are plenty of indie games out there that do that kind of stuff, and plenty that don't even cost any money. There's art mods for all sorts of stuff now that you can play that are probably ten million times more interesting than anything Valve can do if it tries to make a traditional first-person shooter[…] in the years since they came out with this game, game development has been democratized in a way they probably never could've predicted, and plenty of people who grew up playing the "Half-Life" games are poised to do exciting, world-changing stuff with the medium.

—Laura Michet


If you've played a mainstream first-person shooter in the last 10-15 years, it's extremely likely you've played something made by a former Snarkpit or Mapcore user.


Think of brushes as the basic building blocks of a level.


In the lingo of Worldcraft and Hammer, the GoldSrc and Source
Engine mapping tools, any vehicle built in-editor from moving brushes was a "train" entity.


To make your own de_dust cake follow this recipe for a Victoria Sponge and adorn it with the dust texture set, printed on edible sugar paper.


The most recent version of the game.

Mathew Olson is an Associate Editor at Digg.

Urban Living Makes Us Miserable. This City Is Trying To Change That

Digg · Updated:

If you live in Glasgow, you are more likely to die young. Men there die a full seven years earlier than their counterparts in other UK cities. Until recently, the causes of this excess mortality remained a mystery.

'Deep-fried Mars bars,' some have speculated. 'The weather,' others suggested. For years, those reasons were as good as any. In 2012, the Economist described it thus: 'It is as if a malign vapour rises from the Clyde at night and settles in the lungs of sleeping Glaswegians.'

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The phenomenon has become known as the Glasgow Effect. But David Walsh, a public health programme manager at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, who led a study on the excess deaths in 2010, wasn't satisfied with how the term was being used. 'It turned into a Scooby-Doo mystery but it's not an exciting thing. It's about people dying young, it's about grief.'

He wanted to work out why Glaswegians have a 30 per cent higher risk of dying prematurely - that is, before the age of 65 - than those living in similar post-industrial British cities. In 2016 his team published a report looking at 40 hypotheses - from vitamin D deficiency to obesity and sectarianism. 'The most important reason is high levels of poverty, full stop,' says Walsh. 'There's one in three children who are classed as living in poverty at the moment.'

But even with deprivation accounted for, mortality rates in Glasgow remained inexplicable. Deaths in each income group are about 15 per cent higher than in Manchester or Liverpool. In particular, deaths from 'diseases of despair' - drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related deaths - are high. In the mid-2000s, after adjusting for sex, age and deprivation, there was almost a 70 per cent higher mortality rate for suicide in Glasgow than in the two English cities.

Walsh's report revealed that radical urban planning decisions from the 1950s onwards had made the physical and mental health of Glasgow's population more vulnerable to the consequences of deindustrialisation and poverty.

Shifting theories of city planning have profoundly altered people's lives everywhere, and particularly over the past half-century in Glasgow. The city's population stands at about 600,000 now. In 1951, it was nearly double this. Glasgow's excess mortality, the report suggests, is the unintended legacy of urban planning that exacerbated the already considerable challenges of living in a city.

Studies have consistently linked city living with poorer mental health. For example, growing up in an urban environment is correlated with twice the risk of developing schizophrenia as growing up in the countryside. By 2050, 68 per cent of the world's population will live in cities, according to UN figures. The consequences for global health are likely to be significant.

Can we learn from what happened in Glasgow? As an increasing number of people move to or are born in cities, questions of fragmented communities, transient populations, overcrowding, inequality and segregation - and how these affect the wellbeing of residents - will become more acute.

Are urban dwellers doomed to poor mental health or can planners learn from the mistakes of the past and design cities that will keep us healthy and happy?

Fly tipping on the streets of Possilpark in the North of Glasgow — © Chris Leslie

In postwar Glasgow, local authorities decided to tackle the city's severe overcrowding. The 1945 Bruce report proposed housing people in high-rises on the periphery of the city centre. The Clyde Valley report published a year later suggested encouraging workers and their families to move to new towns. In the end, the council did a combination of both.

New towns like East Kilbride and Cumbernauld are now among the most populous towns in Scotland. Many of those who stayed in Glasgow were relocated to large housing estates like Drumchapel, Easterhouse and Castlemilk.

The rapid change in the city's make-up was soon recognised as disastrous. Relocating workers and their families to new towns was described in mid-1960s parliamentary discussions as 'skimming the cream'. In an internal review in 1971, the Scottish Office noted that the manner of population reduction was 'destined within a decade or so to produce a seriously unbalanced population with a very high proportion [in central Glasgow] of the old, the very poor and the almost unemployable...'

Although the government was soon aware of the consequences, these were not necessarily intentional, says Walsh. 'You have to understand what sort of shape Glasgow was in, in terms of the really lousy living conditions, the levels of overcrowded housing and all the rest of it,' he says. 'They thought the best approach was to just start afresh.'

Anna left the tenements for a high-rise in Glasgow's Sighthill estate, where she has lived on and off since the mid-Sixties. She was a teenager when she moved with her mother and sister to a brand-new fourth-floor flat - picked from a bowler hat. It had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a glass partition in the hallway. 'It was like Buckingham Palace,' remembers Anna. She is now 71, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, with a blonde bob and a raspy cough that doubles as a laugh.

Sighthill's ten 20-storey tower blocks were meant to herald the future. North of the city centre, set in parkland, with a view over the city, they would house more than 7,000 people drawn from the tenements and the slums.

Until then, Anna's family had lived in a tenement building in nearby Roystonhill. 'I slept with my mammy and my sister in a recess,' she says. The toilet was shared. This was typical; little had changed since the 1911 census revealed that in Glasgow almost two-thirds of dwellings - many housing large families and lodgers - had only one or two rooms, compared to a third of dwellings in London.

But when the tenements went, something else went, too. 'There were communities which had a social fabric, if you like, which were then broken up by these processes,' says Walsh.

Anna recalls the change. 'When we were in the tenements, you'd shout up to the window: 'Mammy, I want a piece of jam!' Before you knew it there was a dozen of them being thrown out of the window.' In the tower block, she did not let her own children play unsupervised. Neighbours only spoke if they took the same lift. Her daughter was threatened with a bread knife.

By the 2000s, the tower blocks were infamous for deprivation, violence and drugs. Many residents had moved out, including Anna and her family. Empty flats were used to rehouse asylum seekers. Fractures within the community were worsening.

Glasgow Housing Association decided to condemn the buildings. The towers were demolished over eight years; the last one came down in 2016. Photographer Chris Leslie, who documented their dismantlement, remembers how the buildings were stripped and the crane picked the concrete shell apart. The interior of the flats was revealed, each a tiny different coloured cuboid.

But the roots of Glasgow's excess mortality stretch back further than new towns and high-rises - to the Industrial Revolution, argues Carol Craig, who has written two books on the subject. In Glasgow, then called the Second City of the Empire, factories and the docks needed workers. Overcrowding coupled with a culture of drinking produced an explosive situation.

Faced with the prospect of returning to a cramped tenement, many men preferred to visit the pub; there were few other public meeting places. 'You're more likely to have violence, you're more likely to have conflict, even sexual abuse is much higher in households where there are drinkers,' Craig says.

Being exposed in childhood to stressful events like domestic violence, parental abandonment, abuse, or drug and alcohol addictions is thought to be linked to poor mental and physical wellbeing in later life. The higher a person's number of Adverse Childhood Experiences, as they are called, the more likely they are to suffer from mental illness or addiction. In turn they are more likely to expose their children to similar types of experiences, she says. 'ACEs tend to cascade through the generations.'CloseNext

In the early 20th century, cities were meant to show us how to live. Modern urban planning would make people in the world's cities healthier and happier. In 1933, the influential Swiss-French architect and urban planner Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, published his blueprint for the ideal city. In contrast with the past, he said, the city would now be designed to benefit its residents 'on both the spiritual and material planes'.

Play area at the Children's Wood and North Kelvin Meadow, Glasgow — © Chris Leslie

In his plans for the Radiant City, industrial, commercial and residential zones would be segregated to allow workers to escape pollution; homes would be surrounded by open green spaces to allow residents to meet; wide roads would be set out in a grid system; and high-rise blocks would help clear the slums, remnants of the rapid industrialisation in many cities during the 19th century. These slums were overcrowded and insanitary, and their inhabitants were, as the architect put it, 'incapable of initiating ameliorations'.

Glasgow was among the first and the most enthusiastic to adopt these new buildings. In 1954 a delegation of councillors and planners visited Marseilles to see the Unité d'Habitation, an 18-storey block of flats and amenities resting on concrete stilts, designed by Le Corbusier and finished two years before. Glasgow soon had the highest number of high-rise dwellings in the UK outside London.

Since Le Corbusier, we have learned more about how the design of buildings can affect behaviour. In an oft-cited study from 1973, the psychologist Andrew Baum looked at how the design of two student dormitories at Stony Brook University in Long Island changed how the 34 residents in each interacted with each other.

In the first design, all the students shared common lounge and bathroom facilities along a corridor. In the second, smaller groups of four to six each shared bathrooms and lounges. They found that the first design was a 'socially overloaded environment' which did not allow residents to regulate who they interacted with and when. Being faced with too many people, at times not of their choosing, led students to experience stress; they became less helpful and more antisocial than those in the second design as the year went on.

Perhaps the most famous case study of buildings' effects on their inhabitants still referenced today is Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, 33 11-storey towers inspired by Le Corbusier and designed by the modernist Minoru Yamasaki. Finished in 1956, it was initially seen as a miracle solution to inner-city living. Less than 20 years later, the social problems the blocks seemed to have spawned were deemed so irreparable that the buildings were imploded by the local authorities.

The architect Oscar Newman toured the complex in 1971, a year before demolition started. He argued that the design of a building affected the extent to which residents contributed to its upkeep. If people feel responsible for both keeping an area clean and controlling who uses it, it is likely to be safer. He called this sense of ownership over a territory 'defensible space'.

'The larger the number of people who share a communal space, the more difficult it is for people to identify it as theirs or to feel they have a right to control or determine the activity taking place within it,' Newman wrote. Pruitt-Igoe was not designed to accommodate defensible space. 'Landings shared by only two families were well maintained, whereas corridors shared by 20 families… were a disaster - they evoked no feelings of identity or control.'

Tower blocks with more wealthy residents are less likely to have issues with defensible space: they can pay for cleaners and security guards. Children, on the other hand, are often most affected: these common areas - communal corridors, or landings, or the nearby park - are usually spaces for play.

During his inauguration as rector of Glasgow University in 1972, the Clydeside trade unionist Jimmy Reid argued powerfully that working-class communities left behind by economic advancement were being stored out of sight. 'When you think of some of the high flats around us, it can hardly be an accident that they are as near as one could get to an architectural representation of a filing cabinet.'

Inequality is at its most conspicuous in cities: the very poor and the very rich live side by side yet separately. Relative social status is more likely to be the first measure by which we judge people in places where communities are more transient and inequality starker. This has been shown to have an impact on our psychological wellbeing.

In their book The Inner Level, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard G Wilkinson argue that inequality not only creates social rupture by highlighting people's differences but also encourages competition, contributing to increased social anxiety. They cite a 2004 paper by two psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles - Sally Dickerson and Margaret Kemeny - who analysed 208 studies to find that tasks involving some threat of social evaluation affected stress hormones the most.

Pickett and Wilkinson argue that this type of stress harms our psychological health. 'The more unequal countries had three times as much mental illness as the more equal ones.' This affects people of all social classes. In high-inequality countries, such as the USA and the UK, even the richest 10 per cent of people suffer more anxiety than any group in low-inequality countries except the poorest 10 per cent.

Research has also shown that living in a city can alter our brain's architecture, making it more vulnerable to this type of social stress. In 2011, a team led by psychiatrist Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of Heidelberg University's Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, looked at the implications of urban living on brain biology in one of the first experiments of its kind.

The scientists scanned the brains of 32 students while they were given arithmetic tasks and simultaneously subjected to criticism on headphones. This was designed to simulate social stress. A further 23 performed the same test but were subjected to a different kind of social evaluation: they could see the frowning faces of invigilators while completing the puzzles. The results of the test were stark: the participants who lived in a city demonstrated a greater neurophysiological reaction to the same stress-inducing situation. The amygdala, an area of the brain which processes emotion, was activated more strongly in current urban dwellers. The test also showed a difference between those who'd grown up in cities and those brought up in towns or the countryside. The former displayed a stronger response in their perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, which regulates the amygdala and is associated with stress and negative emotion.

Meyer-Lindenberg's previous work on risk mechanisms in schizophrenia focused on genes. But these are only thought to account for a 20 per cent increased chance of developing the illness at most - and growing up in a city is associated with double the risk. Meyer-Lindenberg's research has shown that stressful experiences in early life correlate with reduced volume of grey matter in the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, a factor often seen in people with schizophrenia. 'Mental health is almost uniformly worse in cities... that's just what the data shows,' Meyer-Lindenberg says over the phone. 'There isn't really a bright side to this.'

Lack of agency - the feeling that we don't have control over a situation - is one of the core mechanisms determining how strongly social stress is experienced, says Meyer-Lindenberg. 'People who are in leadership positions tend to cope better with a given amount of stress.' In a city, and particularly if you are poor, you are far more dependent on other people and the urban infrastructure, whether it's waiting impatiently for a bus or a lift, wondering who you'll have to share a lift with in your high-rise complex, or hoping the local council will not choose your neighbourhood for redevelopment.

Cities can also of course be liberating. 'The flip side of being more stressful is that they may be more stimulating,' Meyer-Lindenberg says. 'This tighter community that you have in a village, say, can be very oppressive if you don't feel like you belong, if you're an outsider of some sort.'

Inequality has been shown to lower trust in others and damage social capital - the networks between people which allow societies to function effectively. People are so worried about security that they're mentally building walls around themselves, says Liz Zeidler, chief executive of the Happy City Initiative, a research centre based in Bristol. 'We need to be doing the opposite: we need to be creating more and more spaces where people can connect, learn across their differences.'

Happy City has designed a way to measure the local conditions shown to improve well-being. Its Thriving Places Index looks at housing, education, inequality, green space, safety and community cohesion.

Perhaps, however, a good measure for the happiness of a place, Zeidler says, is the status of the 'indicative species'. It's an idea borrowed from the author and urbanist Charles Montgomery. For ponds, she says, it might be that the presence of a certain type of newt tells you whether or not the water is healthy. In cities, the newts are children. 'If you can see children, it's probably a healthy and happy city.' The way a city is laid out can foster this environment, she says, by 'closing of streets, making it more pedestrianised, more green spaces, having more what urban planners would call 'bumping spaces', where you can literally bump into people. Slowing places down is really good for everybody's wellbeing and, obviously,' she adds, 'you then see more children on the streets.'

Without looking at the car swinging towards him, Christopher Martin, one of the urban planners behind the Avenues regeneration project of Glasgow city centre, crosses the road. Thankfully, the car slows down. Martin continues, blithely, discussing the priority of pedestrians and rule 170 of the Highway Code. 'Nicely acted, don't you think?' quips Stephen O'Malley, a civic engineer and Martin's colleague, who's stayed safely on the kerb beside me.

The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman used to perform a similar trick in the early 2000s. He would walk, usually with a journalist in tow, backwards, eyes closed, into a four-way crossing with no traffic lights or signs. Monderman believed roads were safer without traffic signs; in order to navigate unfamiliar routes, cars would slow down. The common sense of the drivers would act as a more powerful safety guard than any sign.

'What we're trying to do is to get people to interact with each other - be human beings,' Martin says as we continue to walk up Sauchiehall Street. 'It's a very dehumanising effect stepping into a car.'

Saracen St in Possilpark in the north of Glasgow — © Chris Leslie

Sauchiehall Street is the first area to be worked on as part of the Avenues, a £115 million project to form an integrated network of pedestrian and cycle routes on 17 roads and surrounding areas in the city centre between the Clyde and Glasgow's infamous motorway, which forms a near noose around the area. Glasgow's central grid is mostly made of four-lane roads. When you walk across the city, the roads, some at a steep incline, others stretching towards a grey horizon, seem solely taken up with cars and buses. 'The city will get what it invites,' says Martin. Now parts of these roads will be given over to those walking and biking, and to trees and benches.

City planners the world over have a history of favouring the needs of cars. In 1955 Robert Moses, New York City parks commissioner, was planning to build a four-lane road through Washington Square Park. Some of the residents demurred, including journalist Jane Jacobs. In 1958, three years in to what would become a 14-year fight to save Greenwich Village, she wrote an article in Fortune magazine, which eventually formed the basis of her book The Death and Life of American Cities.

To keep downtown activities 'compact and concentrated', Jacobs advocated removing cars. 'The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated, and busier than before - not less so.' She argued against planners' grand schemes that sought to demolish and redevelop, instead saying that cities should grow in line with what people want and how they use the spaces that already exist. 'There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.'

Giving priority to cars has distorted cities' proportions, Martin says. 'If you build at the scale of cars, you get wide roads, you get wide streets, you get cities which stretch out because cars are fast and cars are big.' Taking space away from cars gives the public realm back to the people. 'It's very antisocial being sat in a metal box by yourself,' he says. 'The rise of urban loneliness and mental health [issues] to do with that disconnection is vast.'

In Glasgow, Sauchiehall Street is being used as a proof of concept, while the other Avenues will be implemented over the next eight years. 'The opportunity is that it's an absolutely magnificent city,' Martin says, punctuating his excitement by sweeping his hair back. 'It's a grid system and the streets are so wide: there's a lot of space. In one fell swoop, we're going to make an enormous change.'

If designed well, cities can be good for us. 'If you look at urban dwellers epidemiologically,' says Meyer-Lindenberg, 'they tend to be richer, better educated, [with] better access to healthcare. And they also tend to be somatically healthier.' They also tend to have a smaller carbon footprint. 'You can't raze cities to the ground and rebuild them,' he says. 'You have to find ways to maximise people's wellbeing.'

Meyer-Lindenberg is currently tracking how different parts of the city affect our mental wellbeing, using a technique called ecological momentary assessment, in which participants repeatedly report on the environment around them in real time. Various studies have suggested that nature - be that a tree or a park - has an important impact on people's mental health. The app he is currently designing will allow people to plan their routes through the city in order to maximise their exposure to nature.

'The most beneficial nature is the one that looks like the kind of nature that humans would have encountered during their early evolution,' he surmises. Perhaps the manicured parks of the type preferred by urban planners may not actually be that effective at improving our wellbeing.

In 2012, Emily Cutts realised the importance of these kinds of green spaces when the meadow overlooked by her second-floor flat in west Glasgow was threatened with development. Once used as an informal football pitch by locals, the meadow had mostly been frequented by dog walkers and drug addicts since the council, who wanted to sell the land, removed the goalposts. Now it finally looked as if a plan to build 90 deluxe flats might pass.

Cutts decided that the only way to save the meadow was to launch a campaign. Over the next few years, the community organised petitions, events and a three-month vigil in George Square in the city centre. Eventually the Scottish government stepped in. On 21 December 2016, it was determined that the meadow would remain undeveloped. It's known locally as the Children's Wood and is managed by a charity.

But why did Cutts and her fellow campaigners fight so passionately for this dingy meadow? Her neighbourhood, about ten minutes north of the Botanic Gardens, already had plenty of green space. Was it simply a case of not wanting development on her doorstep?

When I meet Cutts, in the community garden, she is deep in discussion with the gardener, Christine, about the possibility of using a wormery to transform dog faeces into compost for the trees. There are raised beds for planting, a bathtub with upturned earth for children to dig and an 'edible' teepee (pea shoot tendrils will soon be climbing up the twigs). It was planted by a 12-year-old boy who, Cutts tells me, is regularly excluded from school.

Cutts is slight with long blonde hair, a soft Glaswegian accent and an eager countenance. She has an MSc in positive psychology. It was while working as Carol Craig's researcher, compiling and presenting research on how to improve wellbeing, that she grew to understand the meadow's potential to make her community healthier and happier.

Today, more than 20 schools and nurseries from the local area use the meadow. During my visit, Kelvinside Academy is having a forestry lesson. Children are playing around the thin birch trees, tying ropes around them, swinging friends vigorously in hammocks that look like laughing body bags, and digging in the earth. They learn to use knives for woodland tasks.

Cutts collaborated with a researcher at the University of Glasgow on a series of tests comparing the attention spans of children who spent their lunchtime in the meadow with those who stayed indoors or played in the school's concrete playground. The attention of children exposed to nature was 'significantly better'. Attention restorative theories argue that nature can have an impact on our attention span by engaging our indirect attention; this allows the type of attention we use for more challenging cognitive tasks, such as mathematical problems, to recuperate. The team also performed a similar experiment looking at children's creativity in art. 'Children who came here used more colours, used more texture, made more depth to their pictures than those who hadn't played outside,' says Cutts.

New housing development at Sighthill in North Glasgow — © Chris Leslie

Richard Mitchell, a professor in the Social & Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow, has also been looking at how exposure to nature affects stress in deprived communities. Despite previous research showing a beneficial impact, his own findings have shown it to be slight. 'These are all very deprived communities with a whole range of other problems going on, and the detrimental impact of life in poverty and other stressful situations is not outweighed by access to green space,' he tells me over the phone. 'I think what we have to understand is that at a population level it may not have an absolutely spectacular impact straight away, [but] it is important.'

Further study, however, showed that one aspect of exposure to nature 'had pretty strong protective effects on mental health in adulthood,' Mitchell says. Those who had been scouts or guides, and had repeated contact with nature over a long period of time 'where they're learning a whole variety of skills including being outdoors and appreciation of nature', were less vulnerable to mental ill-health.

The Children's Wood charity runs a regular youth club where they bring young people to help with the gardening. Many of the children come from deprived families: 'That's what always interests us about the space,' says Cutts. 'It's bang right in the centre of inequality - there's so much poverty and there's a lot of affluence around. So, we feel it's sort of a level playing field and everybody is welcome.' Unlike in parks, which can be anonymous, here you have 'a committed community who are involved in the space,' she says.

We go up the road together to visit a GP at home who works in Possilpark, one of the poorest districts in the city. She prescribes visits to the Children's Wood, in addition to other treatments, due to the benefits of 'peer support, getting out of your house, talking to others, getting more engaged in your community, watching things grow, nurturing other things, nurturing oneself and self-care'. She says that when her patients talk about the wood, it is one of the few times she sees them smile.

Over 60 per cent of Glasgow's population lives within 500 metres of a derelict site. A 2013 study found that vacant land and deprivation were linked to poor mental and physical health. It recommended that the city council grant the more than 700 hectares available to highly deprived communities to be used for community good.

'Reclaiming the land for community is definitely the way forward,' Cutts says, as we both look over the meadow in the drizzling rain. 'You can tell there's a need but it's not happening all over and it could be.'

In some parts of Glasgow, it feels like things could be changing, though it is mostly testament to the resilience of those who live there. I meet Anna at St Rollox, the church in Sighthill where she volunteers every week, near where the high-rises used to be. The church is currently is in a series of Portakabins while the nave of a new building takes shape. Sighthill is now part of a regeneration deal worth £250m: there will be low-rise housing, shops, a school, a community garden. When I ask Anna whether she would want to return to Sighthill, she says yes immediately.

In the evening after my visit to the Children's Wood, Cutts shows me the youth programme where 40 or so children are learning how to trampoline. As I wait for the bus, in the soft grey evening, I see some of the children leaving, mostly boys who are about 13 or 14, jostling and pushing each other playfully in the middle of the wide road. This is why we have to make our urban spaces happier and healthier. They are the newts in the city.

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Inside TurboTax's 20-Year Fight To Stop Americans From Filing Their Taxes For Free

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ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Last fall, Intuit's longtime CEO Brad Smith embarked on a farewell tour of the company's offices around the world. Smith had presided over 11 years of explosive growth, a period when Intuit had secured its place in the Silicon Valley pantheon, and the tour was like a long party.

In Ontario, employees wore T-shirts with Smith's quasi-spiritual sayings: 'Do whatever makes your heart beat fastest' and 'Repetition doesn't ruin the prayer.' In Bangalore, India, workers put on Smith face masks as they posed for selfies with the man himself. Fittingly, the tour culminated in San Diego, the home of TurboTax, the software that transformed the company's fortunes. There, Smith arrived at his party in a DeLorean, and as he walked a red carpet, cheering employees waved "Brad is Rad" signs. To Smith's delight, his favorite rock star, Gene Simmons of Kiss, emerged. The two posed for pictures, Simmons clad in black and the beaming CEO flashing the "rock on" hand sign.

Intuit began in the 1980s as an accounting software company focused on helping people with their bookkeeping. Over time, the company, like the other giants of Big Tech, cultivated an image of being not just good at what it did, but good, period. In a recent Super Bowl ad, Intuit portrayed itself as a gentle robot that liberates small-business owners from paperwork. The company stresses values above all, urging employees to "deliver awesome" and pursue "integrity without compromise."

Intuit's QuickBooks accounting product remains a steady moneymaker, but in the past two decades TurboTax, its tax preparation product, has driven the company's steadily growing profits and made it a Wall Street phenom. When Smith took over in 2008, TurboTax was a market leader, but only a small portion of Americans filed their taxes online. By 2019, nearly 40% of U.S. taxpayers filed online and some 40 million of them did so with TurboTax, far more than with any other product.

But the success of TurboTax rests on a shaky foundation, one that could collapse overnight if the U.S. government did what most wealthy countries did long ago and made tax filing simple and free for most citizens.

For more than 20 years, Intuit has waged a sophisticated, sometimes covert war to prevent the government from doing just that, according to internal company and IRS documents and interviews with insiders. The company unleashed a battalion of lobbyists and hired top officials from the agency that regulates it. From the beginning, Intuit recognized that its success depended on two parallel missions: stoking innovation in Silicon Valley while stifling it in Washington. Indeed, employees ruefully joke that the company's motto should actually be "compromise without integrity."

Internal presentations lay out company tactics for fighting "encroachment," Intuit's catchall term for any government initiative to make filing taxes easier — such as creating a free government filing system or pre-filling people's returns with payroll or other data the IRS already has. "For a decade proposals have sought to create IRS tax software or a ReturnFree Tax System; All were stopped," reads a confidential 2007 PowerPoint presentation from an Intuit board of directors meeting. The company's 2014-15 plan included manufacturing "3rd-party grass roots" support. "Buy ads for op-eds/editorials/stories in African American and Latino media," one internal PowerPoint slide states.

The centerpiece of Intuit's anti-encroachment strategy has been the Free File program, hatched 17 years ago in a moment of crisis for the company. Under the terms of an agreement with the federal government, Intuit and other commercial tax prep companies promised to provide free online filing to tens of millions of lower-income taxpayers. In exchange, the IRS pledged not to create a government-run system.

Since Free File's launch, Intuit has done everything it could to limit the program's reach while making sure the government stuck to its end of the deal. As ProPublica has reported, Intuit added code to the Free File landing page of TurboTax that hid it from search engines like Google, making it harder for would-be users to find.

Twelve years ago, Intuit launched its own "free" product: the similarly named "Free Edition" of TurboTax. But unlike the government program, this one comes with traps that can push customers lured with the promise of "free" into paying, some more than $200. Free Edition was a smash hit for Intuit and its pitch for "free" prep remains core to the company's growth. Recently, it launched a "free, free free free" ad campaign for the Free Edition, including a crossword puzzle in The New York Times in which the answer to every clue was "f-r-e-e."

Intuit knows it's deceiving its customers, internal company documents obtained by ProPublica show. "The website lists Free, Free, Free and the customers are assuming their return will be free," said a company PowerPoint presentation that reported the results of an analysis of customer calls this year. "Customers are getting upset."

An internal Intuit analysis of customer calls this year shows widespread customer confusion about ads for "free" TurboTax. (Highlights added by ProPublica.)

Intuit also continues to use "dark patterns" — design tricks to get users of its website to do things they don't necessarily mean to do — to ensure that as many customers as possible pay, former employees say. A marketing concept frequently invoked at Intuit, which goes by the acronym "FUD," seeks to tap into Americans' fear, uncertainty and doubt about the tax filing process.

An Intuit spokesman declined to answer ProPublica's detailed questions about its efforts to fend off a government filing system, but he provided a statement.

"We empower our customers to take control of their financial lives, which includes being in charge of their own tax preparation," he said, adding that a "government-run pre-filled tax preparation system that makes the tax collector (who is also the investigator, auditor and enforcer) the tax preparer is fraught with conflicts of interest."

The IRS is seemingly the biggest threat to Intuit and other commercial tax prep businesses, but it has more frequently acted as the industry's ally, defending the Free File program even in the face of critical internal reviews. The IRS declined to comment for this article.

The consequences of Intuit's efforts affect a huge proportion of the taxpaying public. Americans spend an estimated 1.7 billion hours and $31 billion doing their taxes each year. Just 2.8 million participated in the Free File program this year, down from 5.1 million at the program's peak in 2005.

Intuit's success has made the men who run the company rich. Smith, the CEO who stepped down last year and is now executive board chair, had a stake worth $20 million when he became chief executive. It ballooned to $220 million by last year. Co-founder Scott Cook is now among the country's wealthiest people, his fortune soaring to $3.3 billion.

This year, Intuit was close to realizing a long-held goal: enshrining the Free File program in law, effectively closing the door on the IRS ever creating a free tax filing system. But an outcry followed ProPublica's reporting on the matter and Intuit's treatment of its customers, prompting the provision to be dropped and state and federalinvestigations into Intuit's practices.

Yet even after this setback, the company remained steadfastly confident that its clout in Washington would win the day.

"What we're not gonna do is fight this publicly because that is exactly what they want us to do," said Sasan Goodarzi, the new CEO, in a video released to staff this May and obtained by ProPublica. "We are actually working with the IRS and members of the Congress to ensure that the facts are very clear."

Intuit has dominated the tax software market since 1993, when for $225 million, it bought Chipsoft, the San Diego-based company that had created TurboTax. Even then, TurboTax was the most popular option, but Intuit pursued a plan of aggressive growth. The product necessarily came on a disk, and by the end of the 1990s TurboTax boxes were nearly ubiquitous, on shelves in office supply stores across America.

As internet speeds increased and dot-com mania took hold, it became apparent that Intuit's future was not in a box on a shelf. It was online.

The prospect of TurboTax's growth was vast for another reason. As late as 2001, around 45 million Americans still filled out their tax forms on paper. For Intuit, those were all potential customers.

But Intuit wasn't alone in seeing possibilities in the spread of high-speed internet. In Washington, lawmakers began pushing the IRS to modernize and get more taxpayers to file electronically. It was a no-brainer: Filing taxes online would be easier, and the IRS would save staff costs on processing paper returns.

The danger to Intuit's growing business was obvious. If the government succeeded in creating a system that allowed the vast majority of taxpayers to file online for free, TurboTax profits would plummet. Intuit recognized that the notion of "return-free filing" was not going away on its own.

And so in 1998, the company hired Bernie McKay, a onetime Carter administration aide and a senior lobbyist at AT&T, to be its vice president for corporate affairs. Intuit executives like to talk about having a "customer obsession" in developing their products. McKay's obsession is stopping government encroachment. Known to physically bang the table to drive home a point, McKay's style is "aggressive to the point of offense," said one fellow tax prep lobbyist. An Intuit spokesman said, "This mischaracterization of Mr. McKay is pure fiction."

McKay, for his part, when asked at a recent tax industry conference which Star Wars character he is, responded, "Darth Vader."

The year McKay was hired, Congress passed a major overhaul of the IRS. The bill, reflecting Intuit's lobbying, said that the IRS "should cooperate with and encourage the private sector" to increase electronic filing.

While McKay came through in his first big test, in 2002, the company found itself up against an unexpected foe, the George W. Bush administration. The threat came from a broad administration initiative to upgrade government technology. One of the proposals called for the IRS to develop "an easy, no-cost option for taxpayers to file their tax return online."

Without such an option, taxpayers were stuck either filing on paper or, to file electronically, paying a tax professional or software company like TurboTax. Providing an alternative would be an obvious improvement, said Mark Forman, an official at the Office of Management and Budget who led the "e-government" program. The technology wasn't all that complicated, and creating a free, automated filing system would help tens of millions of Americans. "This was seen as a low-cost, high-payoff initiative," Forman recalled in a recent interview with ProPublica. Standing in the way, he said, was an industry "that lives off the complexity of the tax code."

Intuit revved its new lobbying machine. Even before the OMB report was publicly released, a group of Republican lawmakers, led by TurboTax's hometown congressman, wrote to the agency arguing that there was no reason for the government to "compete" with the "well-established" private tax prep companies. Intuit's lobbyists also went above the OMB and pressed their case directly to the White House, Forman recalled.

At the IRS, "all hell broke loose," remembered Terry Lutes, who was then the head of electronic filing at the agency. Intuit's clout on the Hill meant that lawmakers were soon accusing the IRS of making "secret plans to undercut the industry," Lutes said. The agency ran the risk of seeing its funding cut if it were to pursue the Bush plan.

The IRS commissioner at the time, Charles Rossotti, also opposed the idea. The IRS' customer service staff, already too thin to respond adequately to Americans' questions about the tax code, would have to grow substantially to handle millions of software queries. Congress "will never give you sufficient funding," Rossotti told ProPublica.

So the IRS felt caught in the middle. The question became, Lutes said, "Is there some way to come out of this with something for taxpayers that addresses the administration's objective and at the same time is acceptable to industry?"

Intuit, it turned out, did have a way. Since 1999, as part of the company's strategy to head off encroachment, TurboTax had been offering free tax prep to the poorest filers.It was a program that served to bolster the company's arguments that government intervention was unnecessary.

This became the basis for a deal. The industry would offer free tax prep to a larger portion of taxpayers. In exchange, the IRS would promise not to develop its own system.

Intuit organized a coalition of tax prep companies under the name the Free File Alliance, and after negotiations with the IRS, the group agreed to provide free federal filing to 60% of taxpayers, or about 78 million people at the time. Government officials touted the solution as a marvel of public and private cooperation. Americans would get free tax prep, and it would cost the government almost nothing.

For Intuit, it was the culmination of years of lobbying. The IRS had signed a contract that said it "will not compete with the [Free File Alliance] in providing free, online tax return preparation and filing services to taxpayers."

What's more, "free" wasn't as unprofitable as it sounded. The alliance, guided by a lawyer who was also an Intuit lobbyist, won a series of concessions that made the program palatable to industry. Free File only required the companies to offer free federal returns. They could charge for other products. The state return was the most common, but they could also pitch loans, "audit defense" or even products that had nothing to do with taxes.

Free File had another bright side: The companies could tailor their Free File offers so that they didn't cut into their base of paying customers. The agreement said the industry had to offer free federal services to at least 60% of taxpayers, but each company individually only had to cover 10% of taxpayers. Intuit and the others were free to limit their offers of free tax prep by age, income or state.

There was little incentive for the companies to publicize a free alternative to their paid products, and the IRS agreed that the Free File offers need only be listed on a special page of the agency's website.

For Intuit, it was a major victory in the war against encroachment. The company could now focus on turning whatever new customers it acquired through the program into paying users, both that year and in the future.

The first year of Free File was 2003, and for Intuit, things went well. On paper, the Free File Alliance was a collection of 17 companies, all of them vying to serve the American taxpayer. But in reality, it was a group made up of two giants and a bunch of gnats. Intuit's only significant competitor was H&R Block, and even it was a distant second. The rest of the alliance consisted mostly of tiny companies with names like Free1040TaxReturns.com. As a result, Intuit could tailor its Free File offer just the way it wanted.

But the next year, Intuit began to lose control of its creation. A scrappy competitor, TaxAct, decided to use Free File to stand out. The company decided it would try to pick up as many new customers as possible and then charge them for ancillary services. Instead of following Intuit's lead and constraining its offer to a subset of low-income taxpayers, TaxAct went the opposite direction.

"Why not go for an offer that's much simpler to understand?" is how Lance Dunn, the president of the maker of TaxAct, described the strategy in a later court hearing. It began advertising a pitch for "free federal online tax preparation and e-filing for all taxpayers. No restrictions. Everyone qualifies."

TurboTax's offer on the Free File page, meanwhile, was more difficult to parse: "if you are eligible for EIC, are age 22 or younger, age 62 or older, or active Military with a W2." (EIC stood for the Earned Income Tax Credit.)

TaxAct's ploy was a smashing success. The company's volume exploded.

Alarmed, Intuit tried to get the other companies not to offer their products for free to too many potential customers, according to Dunn. Such a request could be collusion, a violation of antitrust law, Dunn said. "Intuit asked the Free File Alliance members that we should restrict offers, which I believe is probably not legal for that group to restrain trade," he said.

ProPublica asked Intuit about Dunn's accusation, but the company did not respond.

Dunn, who declined to speak with ProPublica, made these remarks during sworn testimony in 2011. The hearing was part of an antitrust case by the Justice Department against H&R Block after it tried to buy TaxAct. The U.S. argued that, by eliminating a competitor, the merger would create a duopoly of Intuit and H&R Block. Although the Justice Department ultimately blocked that takeover, the market has grown even more consolidated in recent years. In 2019, according to a ProPublica analysis of IRS data, the two giants accounted for 81% of all individual returns filed using tax prep software.

On the defensive, Intuit and H&R Block matched TaxAct's "no restrictions" offer on Free File. Americans rushed to file for free, and in 2005, 5 million people filed their taxes through the program. Free File had become the most popular way to file taxes online.

Intuit viewed the popularity of Free File as a serious threat and took its case to Congress. That year, Brad Smith, then a senior vice president at the company and head of TurboTax, told a House committee that "the current Free File Alliance program has drifted very far from its original public service purpose and objective," as he put it. The program wasn't supposed to be for everyone, he said: It was for the "disadvantaged, underprivileged and underserved taxpayer populations."

Intuit's arguments quickly gained traction at the IRS. Already, in March 2005, the IRS had written to the Justice Department for legal advice on modifying the Free File program. The agency wanted to know: Would it run afoul of antitrust laws if the IRS barred companies in the Free File Alliance from offering a free product to everyone?

The Justice Department responded in a May 2005 letter. Clearly, wrote Renata Hesse, an antitrust section chief at the department, "any agreement among Alliance members to restrict such free service is likely a form of price fixing" and thus illegal. But there was still a way for Intuit to get what it wanted. She wrote that if the IRS itself were to impose such a restriction, it would be legal.

The IRS swooped in to beat back Intuit's competition, doing for Intuit what the company could not on its own. Despite just 5 million Americans using a program that was purportedly available to 80 million, the IRS agreed that Free File needed to be reined in.

A confidential presentation for Intuit's board showed how the company, over a decade, beat back attempts to make tax filing easier.

The agency made its reasoning clear in a previously unreported letter sent to the Free File Alliance the following year. Bert DuMars, then head of electronic filing at the IRS, wrote that there'd been a huge jump in people using Free File in 2005, but no corresponding boom in people paying for tax prep. "If this trend continued, the IRS was concerned that it could cause many vendors to go out of business," he wrote. Stock market analysts, he pointed out, had said Free File "represented a threat to future revenues and profits of the publicly traded company participants." The IRS decided to remove this threat.

The new agreement, struck between the IRS and the alliance in 2005, gave Intuit what it had sought. Companies were now expressly barred from offering free tax prep to everyone through the program. Instead, only taxpayers under an income cap, then $50,000 a year, would be eligible.

On paper, the program's eligibility had actually increased to 70% of taxpayers, or about 93 million households, up from the previous 78 million. But in practice, because broad, easy-to-understand offers were now barred, it was clear the program's use would decline.

Intuit had again bent the power of the federal government in its favor. After 2005, the Free File program was never again as popular, eventually falling to about half that year's level.

With the threat of government encroachment on ice and high-speed internet access proliferating in the mid-2000s, Intuit looked forward to steady growth and big profits. The upside of the online software business was huge, with the cost of producing each additional unit approaching zero. And TurboTax was hardly a niche product: Intuit executives still excitedly talk about the TAM, total available market, of TurboTax as every single tax filer in the country, now over 150 million households.

But TaxAct's Free File gambit had forever transformed the industry. Advertising "free" was a great lure, so TaxAct took the battle to a different venue. Barred from making a free offer to everyone through Free File on the IRS' website, TaxAct decided to make the offer on its own website in 2006. Intuit recognized a credible challenge from the upstart and countered the next year, launching TurboTax Free Edition on its website.

Confusingly, there were now two distinct options: the government-sponsored Free File and the commercial free editions.

For customers who managed to qualify, the new commercial options offered by these companies were similar to what they could get on the IRS' Free File website: The underlying software was the same, only the federal return was free, and the companies expected to make money on each customer through charging for a state tax return or other services.

But for the companies, there was a clear benefit to winning customers directly, rather than through the IRS program. The companies had complete control over how they handled customers from start to finish.

Intuit poured ad dollars into its Free Edition. Not only did the new product effectively meet TaxAct's challenge, it quickly became the major driver of TurboTax's customer growth.

That growth posed a challenge: how to, as internal company documents put it, "monetize free." Over successive tax seasons, Intuit unleashed teams of designers, engineers, marketers and data scientists on that problem, working at its headquarters in Mountain View and TurboTax's main offices in San Diego.

Part of the solution was to pitch users side products like loans or "Audit Defense." But it also meant misleading customers. Frequently "free" didn't mean free at all. Many who started in TurboTax Free Edition found that if their return required certain commonplace tax forms, they would have to upgrade to a paid edition in order to file.

The company came to a key insight: Americans' anxiety around tax filing is so powerful that it usually trumps any frustration with the TurboTax product, according to three former Intuit staffers. So even if customers click on "free" and are ultimately asked to pay, they will usually do it rather than start the entire process anew. Intuit capitalized on this tendency by making sure the paywall popped up only when the taxpayer was deep into the filing process.

"There's a lot of desperation — people will agree, will click, will do anything to file," said a former longtime software developer.

Every fall before tax season, the company puts every aspect of the TurboTax homepage and filing process through rigorous user testing. Design decisions down to color, word choice and other features are picked to maximize how many customers pay, regardless if they are eligible for the free product. "Dark patterns are something that are spoken of with pride and encouraged in design all hands" meetings, said one former designer. In the design world, "dark patterns" are tactics to get users to do something they don't necessarily mean to do. (ProPublica previously documented dark patterns encountered by people trying to file their taxes for free.)

On TurboTax's homepage, for example, the company carefully chooses how it describes the different editions. Prominently featured next to Deluxe Edition, which costs around $100, is the phrase "maximize your deductions."

If users initially click on the Deluxe software, they are never offered the choice to go to the Free Edition even if the no-cost option would produce the same return. "Maximize your deductions" was legendary at Intuit for its effectiveness in steering customers eligible for free filing to buy the paid product, according to a former marketing staffer.

Another celebrated feature, former staffers said, were the animations that appear as TurboTax users prepare their returns. One shows icons representing different tax deductions scrolling by, while another, at the end of the process, shows paper tax forms being scanned line-by-line and the phrase "Let's comb through your returns." What users are not told is that these cartoons reflect no actual processing or calculations; rather, Intuit's designers deliberately added these delays to both reinforce and ease users' "Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt." The animations emphasize that taxes are complicated but also reassure users that the technological wizardry of TurboTax will protect them from mistakes.

In a statement, the Intuit spokesman said, "The process of completing a tax return often has at least some level of stress and anxiety associated with it. ... To offset these feelings, we use a variety of design elements — content, animation, movement, etc. — to ensure our customers' peace of mind."

The 2007 launch of Free Edition started a period of rapid growth for TurboTax. Within two years, use of its web products had almost doubled, and over the past decade, its website has grown each year by an average of 2 million more customers. The company reported this year that TurboTax online had handled 32 million returns. In a statement, it said around a third of that number used Free Edition.

The government's Free File program, meanwhile, has mostly faded into the background, drowned out by Intuit's and other companies' "free" offers. The IRS did try advertising campaigns, spending around $2 million some years to spread the word. But compared with the reach of Intuit, this was a pittance: The company reported this year that it spent $800 million on advertising. With its budget slashed by Congress, the IRS has spent no money at all to advertise the program in recent years.

Amid its success, Intuit has sometimes had to put down insurgents bent on reforming the tax filing system. In 2007, the same year Intuit launched its Free Edition, Barack Obama, then a candidate for president, took aim at the tax prep industry. In a speech to an audience of tax wonks in Washington, he promised that the IRS would establish a simple return system. "This means no more worry, no more waste of time, no more extra expense for a tax preparer," he declared.

But the Obama administration, as Bush's had before, found that it was no match for Intuit.

Again, Bernie McKay, the lobbyist who had joined Intuit in the late 1990s and outlasted multiple CEOs, led the company's campaign. In response to the Obama threat, McKay and Intuit's small army of outside lobbyists turned to Congress, where lawmakers friendly to the company introduced a series of bills that would elevate Free File from a temporary deal with the IRS to the law of the land.

Republicans have historically been the company's most reliable supporters, but some Democrats joined them. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat whose district includes part of Silicon Valley, has introduced or co-sponsored five bills over the years that would codify the Free File program, with names like the Free File Permanence Act. Lofgren's spokesperson told ProPublica that the congresswoman believes the IRS, because of its role as tax collector, should not also be the tax preparer.

Hedging its bets, the company also sought to make sure the IRS could not spend a single dollar creating a public filing system. One internal document says Intuit would "advance legislative language in House Appropriations for 'No Funds' restriction on IRS spending" on such a system. It worked. Within a few years, Congress passed a 3,000-page appropriations bill that included a single sentence crucial to Intuit's financial future: "No funds," the law decreed, could be used to "to provide to any person a proposed final return or statement."

Another important aspect of Intuit's influence strategy during the Obama years was covertly enlisting minority and women's groups to press its case.

The internal 2014-15 "encroachment strategy" document discloses plans to "leverage trade groups to support House/Senate Free File bills." It goes on to list the groups Women Impacting Public Policy, The Latino Coalition and the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

Intuit has given money to all of those groups over the years. All have signed letters urging Congress to make the Free File deal permanent. "The Free File program has been a clear success," said one letter signed by The Latino Coalition and the Hispanic Leadership Fund.

A spokesperson for Women Impacting Public Policy said it has received $70,000 from Intuit. The amounts given to the other groups are unknown, and they did not respond to requests for comment.

Company documents also outline plans to "mobilize" a "coalition" that included think tanks and academics, who published op-eds.

Will Marshall, president of the pro-business Progressive Policy Institute, opposed return-free filing in an op-ed in The Hill because doing one's taxes is "a teachable moment [that] prompts us to review our financial circumstances."

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, the most consistent champion of Intuit's policy positions, warned that "big spenders in Washington, D.C. want to socialize all tax preparation in America."

It is unclear whether they were paid by Intuit or the Free File Alliance. Norquist didn't respond to a request for comment, and a Progressive Policy Institute spokesman declined to say whether Intuit gave the group money.

Whatever external challenges to the status quo Intuit has faced, the company has been able to rely on the IRS' continuing enthusiastic support of the Free File program. Every few years, the IRS and the industry got together to renew the deal.

In part, that was due to the relationships Intuit had developed with high-ranking IRS officials. One, Dave Williams, served as the agency's top negotiator on the Free File program for several years and "was very commercially sensitive," said Mark Ernst, the CEO of H&R Block until 2007. Ernst, who later held a senior role at the IRS, told ProPublica that Williams "didn't want to offend the industry," noting that "he was particularly open to having sidebar conversations with key people where he could imagine himself landing some day."

Today, Williams works at Intuit, where he's held the title of chief tax officer since 2013. He is one of several former IRS employees who have gone on to work there. In a statement, Williams told ProPublica he did not have discussions about future employment with Intuit or other companies until after he left the IRS. He added that his career in government was focused on "what is best for the taxpayer" and that he "joined Intuit for the same reason: to help the American taxpayer."

Despite Free File's declining use, the IRS often claimed that the program was nevertheless meeting one of its original goals: driving more people to file electronically instead of on paper. Ernst, who served as a senior official at the IRS from 2009 to 2010, didn't believe that a program used by so few people was having any such effect. "It was a talking point that got trotted out all the time to justify the Free File Alliance," he said.

Internally, IRS managers have also argued that the program is, in a way, a success, because it created "a free marketplace," as one internal management report in 2017 put it. Apparently, customers weren't the only ones taken in by the word "free."

In 2018, Intuit faced rare scrutiny from inside the IRS. The agency asked its Advisory Council, a group of outside experts, to take stock of Free File. To the company's alarm, it soon became apparent that the council's report might be sharply critical.

That July, council chair and University of California, Davis, law professor Dennis Ventry wrote two pieces criticizing an Intuit-backed bill in Congress that would make the program permanent. His op-ed in The Hill was called, "Free File providers scam taxpayers; Congress shouldn't be fooled."

In response, the IRS again rose to Intuit's aid. It rushed to assure the company that Ventry's power to affect the program was limited, according to emails to the Free File Alliance obtained through a public records request.

"The Commissioner has met directly with Mr. Ventry," IRS official Ken Corbin wrote to Steve Ryan, a lobbyist for Intuit who also represented the alliance. "Mr. Ventry will recuse himself from participating or contributing to the topic of Free File."

Corbin heads the IRS division that processes most Americans' tax returns and negotiates the Free File deal with Intuit and the industry.

A few days later, Ryan arrived at the IRS' Constitution Avenue headquarters in Washington to mount a defense of the program. A former Democratic Senate aide turned lawyer-lobbyist, Ryan is known on Capitol Hill for taking on politically fraught clients, including Trump attorney Michael Cohen and the government of Qatar. He helped create Free File in the early 2000s, and it was now his job to secure its future.

Ryan's PowerPoint presentation at the IRS rehashed arguments that the company had been making for the past 15 years. It also highlighted a 2013 study by Brown University professor John Friedman, a former Obama National Economic Council official, to make the point that the program had been successful in generating "Free Tax Returns Outside of Free File." The presentation did not mention that Friedman's study was paid for by the Free File companies and was not published in an academic journal. Friedman declined to say what he was paid but told ProPublica he "wrote the piece based on my analysis of the issues, which I stand by."

Ventry, who attended the meeting, got a call the next day alerting him that a California public records request had been filed for his emails — they were subject to such a request because he's an employee of a state university. It came from the Free File Alliance, as The New York Times later reported. The request, Ventry believes, was designed to "freak me out."

In early October, the council sent a version of its final report, which included a harsh appraisal of the Free File program, to the IRS to seek responses before releasing it publicly the following month.

But in mid-October, just weeks before the report saw the light of day, the Free File industry group fired off an "urgent" request to meet with IRS officials. The goal was to re-sign and "improve" the memorandum of understanding that governed the Free File program, according to the emails. The current agreement wasn't expiring for another two years, but Ryan cited the "time urgency to make changes that will benefit taxpayers" in the coming tax season, adding, "I have not darkened your door in 2018 and need your ... attention to this opportunity."

The IRS' Corbin signed the new deal on Oct. 31. Two weeks later, the Advisory Council report was released, with a damning indictment of the program: "The IRS's deficient oversight and performance standards for the Free File program put vulnerable taxpayers at risk," the report found.

The expert body recommended that the IRS negotiate a series of new provisions designed to increase the use and oversight of the program, including mandating advertising by the companies. But it was too late. A new deal had already been signed with modest changes. As it had in the past, Intuit and the alliance had effectively insulated the program from reform. Members of the council, Ventry said, were "pissed off."

A spokesman for the Free File Alliance said the group had pushed to renegotiate the deal in 2018 because of the looming 2020 presidential campaign. "The reason for the timing of the extension of the agreement was the political season," he said. The group had not seen the report before its release, he added.

(In August, ProPublica sued the IRS to get more correspondence between the agency and Intuit's lobbyists. In response to our Freedom of Information Act requests, the agency has withheld over 100 pages. The case is ongoing.)

The new deal included rules that barred Free File companies from offering extra products to the relatively small number of users who access the program. This makes it much more difficult to convert those users into paying customers.

At around the same time, the industry took steps to make the program more difficult to find. Both Intuit and H&R Block added code to their Free File websites that shielded them from search engines such as Google. The Intuit spokesman said the company increased paid search advertising for Free File "by nearly 80 percent" over the last year and has data showing more people found the program through online search this year than last year, but he declined to provide specific figures.

What is clear is that Intuit's business relies on keeping the use of Free File low. The company has repeatedly declined to say how many of its paying customers are eligible for the program, which is currently open to anyone who makes under $66,000. But based on publicly available data and statements by Intuit executives, ProPublica estimates that roughly 15 million paying TurboTax customers could have filed for free if they found Free File. That represents more than $1.5 billion in estimated revenue, or more than half the total that TurboTax generates. Those affected include retirees, students, people on disability and minimum-wage workers.

Customers, meanwhile, remain confused by Intuit's myriad uses of "free," and internal documents show the company knows it. Over just a two-week period this past filing season, Intuit received nearly 7,000 TurboTax customer calls in which the phrase "supposed to be free" was uttered, according to a company analysis. One customer complained that Intuit charged him even though "it says 'free free free' on the commercial." The TurboTax representative responded: "That ad has been the bane of my existence."

Even as TurboTax's business thrived, 2019 has been a rocky year for Intuit's long-running war against government encroachment. In April, the company was close to finally succeeding in its long-held goal to make Free File permanent. A bill called the Taxpayer First Act was sailing toward almost unanimous approval in Congress. But after ProPublica published a series of stories about the program, including a story showing that military families and students were particularly affected by Intuit's business tactics, the bill stalled. Congress ultimately removed the provision that would have enshrined Free File in law.

After having enabled Intuit for so long, the IRS finally responded to the pressure. It hired a contractor to review the Free File program. But the contractor had previously argued against the IRS offering its own tax prep option, and the review did not recommend major changes. The agency has not yet announced its plans for the future of the program.

The agency's inspector general also launched an audit, which is ongoing. Other investigations and litigation followed, ranging from class-action complaints, alleging that consumers had been deceived by Intuit's tactics, to investigations and lawsuits by regulators and prosecutors in New York and California. Intuit has denied wrongdoing, saying it "has at all times been clear and fair with its customers."

Despite the scrutiny, Wall Street has continued to embrace the company's business model. The company recently announced it made $1.5 billion in profits for its fiscal year. It expects its TurboTax unit to grow by 10% next year. Last year the CEO was paid $20 million. The share price hit an all-time record.

The company has returned to its old strategy: stay the course and take its case directly to the IRS and Congress. Its allies in the Senate have again advanced an appropriations bill that would bar the IRS from developing its own tax filing system. In the spring, Sasan Goodarzi, a former head of the TurboTax unit who took over as CEO of the entire company in January, sought to reassure employees.

"Our view is this will be in the press until there is a resolution with the IRS," he said, according to the video obtained ProPublica. "And we're working with them and we feel very good about where this will end."

This story originally appeared on ProPublica. Read it here.

Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability; Paul Kiel covers business and consumer finance for ProPublica.

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