Browser glitch taxes Revenue On-Line users

6 Aug 2003

A major glitch at Ireland’s flagship e-government website Revenue On-Line (ROS) has resulted in users of Internet Explorer 6 being told to download a two-year-old version of Netscape in order to file their taxes ahead of the 31 October deadline. A leading internet professional has claimed that this raises major security risks for both ROS and people filing their tax returns.

The ROS website, which was developed jointly by the Revenue Commissioners and Accenture, has been regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest successes in e-government so far, with €4.8bn in taxes being collected annually from some 300,000 businesses and individuals around the country.

However, it is understood that a glitch on the system discovered in mid-July, which will only be fixed next week, has resulted in ROS representatives telling concerned tax filers using Internet Explorer (IE) 6 that they would have to switch to a two-year-old version of Netscape (version 4.7) if they wanted to be able to activate the necessary encryption security key to access their tax accounts.

An irate Cormac Callanan, founder of Ireland’s first internet service provider Ieunet, former chair of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI) and a director of the Internet Advisory Board (IAB), which helps combat the spread of child pornography on the web, told that he discovered the glitch in recent days whilst trying to file taxes on behalf of three organisations in a personal capacity and in his role as an internet consultant.

“I discovered that I was unable to log in and pay my PAYE and when I rang the ROS helpdesk I was told that they were having problems with Internet Explorer 6 and that I would have to download Netscape 4.7. The problem with that particular version is that it is two years old and you can’t even download it from the Netscape website. Netscape has evolved to Version 7.1.

“Apart from the inability to find Version 4.7, doing so would open me up to all kinds of viruses and the risk of hacker attacks, hardly ideal if you are making financial transactions. When I put this to the ROS helpdesk, I was told that they could post me out a disk with Netscape 4.7. When I said that this was unacceptable I was told that there were other more traditional ways to file your taxes, such as posting in a cheque,” Callanan said.

“I have to say I was shocked, especially since the internet is supposed to revolutionise tax collection in this country,” Callanan added. “They are intimating that it is a problem with Internet Explorer 6, which is used by almost 90pc of internet users, but I suspect it is a problem with their software. I never had a problem with it before.”

A spokesperson for the ROS confirmed that the agency was experiencing problems with its encryption technology and with the Internet Explorer browser, but denied that it was a problem with the ROS system. “Our developers are working hard to resolve the problem at the moment. Work from our support team will begin on the problem on Monday, but we can’t commit to a time as to when it will be fixed. In the meantime there are other methods. There’s nothing to stop him sending a cheque to pay his tax.”

In terms of the looming 31 October tax deadline she said: “We are as anxious as anybody to resolve the problem. It is going to be prioritised. A lot of customers have switched to Netscape and are successfully filing their taxes.”

Regarding Callanan’s complaint about having to switch to a two-year-old browser in the first place, the spokesperson confirmed that at least 50 people have complained so far about the problem.

“As far as we are aware the problem began in the middle of July and we will commence work on fixing it on Monday. It worked fine before that. We believe it is a problem with the IE6 browser and not the technology on which ROS runs.”

As to why an old browser like Netscape 4.7 should be used instead of newer browsers that would be more secure from virus and hacker attacks, she said: “Netscape 4.7 is the only one that we’ve tested so far. Other browser versions we have not finished testing.” She added that in terms of Apple Macintosh users, users of the OS 9 operating system should have no problems with the ROS website for filing their taxes but that users of the new OS X operating system would have to wait until testing is complete.

An incredulous Cormac Callanan told “90pc of the internet market use IE6. Asking them to change allegiance will have huge ramifications and I can’t believe that the Revenue Commissioners are not warning people about the problem. But even if you do try to install Netscape 4.7, an alert will inform users to download the more up-to-date Version 7.1 and anyone not technically minded will do so and again will be unable to file their taxes.”

A notice on the ROS website warned: “Due to essential maintenance work in the Revenue Computer Centre, all Revenue computer systems including the Revenue On-Line Service will be unavailable on Saturday 9 August. Any inconvenience caused by this disruption to the Revenue On-Line Service is regretted.”

It also appears that extra time has been given to people filing their taxes online. The notice said: “Customers using ROS for Income Tax Payments and Form 11 Return filing now have an extra three weeks in which to fulfil their obligations. The filing and payment date has been extended to 21 November for ROS customers who file their Form 11 Income Tax Return and pay their full liability through ROS.

“For customers who do not complete both the filing and payment transaction through ROS, the due date is still 31 October. Customers can authorise payments through ROS now and be safe in the knowledge that the tax will not be debited from their account until the date they have specified.”

By John Kennedy