Digitization has long been a matter of course in Denmark, even mandatory. Nobody writes letters on paper anymore, and without a personal online ID, nothing works when contacting the authorities. Our correspondent tells how it is to live with it
The Dane, Ellen, likes to sneer when she sees me, her immigrant husband, opening our mailbox again. I look in expectantly every day, although “PostNord” has long since delivered paper letters only once a week. You read that right: once a week. Of course, the tin can with our names is always empty. Nobody in digitized Denmark still uses the old-fashioned form of communication. Not the circle of friends or relatives, not the companies with open invoices and certainly not the authorities.
They also refuse to accept paper mail. Since 2014, all people over the age of 15 have been forced to digitize when they come into contact with the state. We have to maintain an electronic mailbox called “Eboks”, are legally obliged to check it at short intervals and always send our requests digitally in the other direction.
Everything is so much faster and more effective online. If Ellen and I are fed up with our marriage but don’t have any real disagreements, we’ll just sit down in front of the computer. We log in to borger.dk with the mandatory “MitID” (“MeineID”) for everyone, have access to our accounts, fill in the appropriate online form and transfer a fee of 650 kroner (87.40 euros). If the system accepts the form after clicking on “Send”, we are legally divorced and automatically receive a digital receipt. That’s it. So hypothetical.
Digitization in Denmark: Personal contacts are not planned
My actual naturalization process (for dual citizenship) took two and a half years and was also completely digital. After sending in the complex online application form, automated and unfriendly e-mail messages from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened up in my “Eboks” without exception. There are no clerks with names and certainly no face for us. Personal contacts are no longer planned. In an emergency, you can call a hotline, usually manned by student assistants who don’t know the slightest bit about the individual case.
That’s enough, says the state, everyone in our country of manageable size is perfectly connected online. The infrastructure with fast networks is one of the main reasons why Denmark is at the top of the digitization world rankings year after year. The second is the Danish confidence, which is almost incomprehensible by German standards, that the state and other authorities only want the best for everyone when it comes to accessing personal data. And the third, the government’s hands-on determination to maximize use of first and second.
In the Corona period, the fruits of this constellation could be experienced with fast, smooth and flexible vaccination management. If necessary, you just pulled out the yellow and white health card with the ten-digit personal number, someone scanned the barcode on the yellow card, and then everything went by itself. The state delivered during the pandemic, not least thanks to digitization.
Digital Denmark: Without “MitID” nothing works at authorities anymore
But even without Covid, I can find my complete health data, from current prescriptions to all diagnoses during visits to the practice or from the hospital over the past two decades, on the website “sundhed.dk”. At borger.dk we can apply for a replacement driving licence, a place at university or unemployment benefits at any time of the day or night. If we have identified ourselves using MitID.
Nothing works without MitID. Banks, insurance companies, employers with their payslips and an increasing number of institutions are also demanding the new “two-step authentication”: First you call up the relevant website and enter your first password, in order to then log on to a smartphone or tablet using MitID App with a second password to provide the desired access.
Despite my advanced age and letterbox nostalgia, I can cope with being an IT affine. When I first registered for MitID, however, I started sweating and could hardly believe what Hygge Denmark is asking for here: All of us from the age of 15 and also those over 100 have to photograph and scan a specific, miserably long barcode in our passport with our smartphone or tablet.
In the European index for the digital economy and society, Germany currently ranks 13th out of 27 EU member states. That should change with the digital strategy recently passed in the Federal Cabinet.
The minister responsible, Volker Wissing (FDP), has had “lighthouse projects” collected from every department, which are to be implemented in this legislative period. The Digital Ministry has set itself one of the most important tasks: by 2025, at least half of the households and companies in Germany are to be supplied with fiber optic connections. It also promises “uninterrupted wireless voice and data services” for all users by 2026 – “nationwide”.
The Federal Minister of the Interior should ensure that the state provides citizens with secure digital identities so that they can carry out many administrative processes online.
The “open data concept” should be pursued by all ministries. The authorities should make administrative and research data available so that they can be better used by civil society, business, science and administration. Companies that use data from the German Weather Service commercially to promote agriculture could benefit from this. dpa
It goes without saying that an infinite number of people would capitulate and turn to the overcrowded “Bürgerservice” for help. Appointments can of course be booked online. If someone wants to insist on analog contact with the authorities, an application for recognition as an “IT invalid” must be submitted. Reasons worthy of recognition include dementia, homelessness, language problems, “lack of competence to operate a computer”. The liberation from digital compulsion in dealings with authorities does not change the fact that banks, for example, mercilessly insist on online traffic.
The well-known designer Per Arnoldi, responsible for the current color scheme in the Berlin Reichstag, has made his anger public. The lively 81-year-old reported to the Copenhagen newspaper Politiken that he felt labeled an “incompetent idiot” and that his grandson’s move to Canada was his IT meltdown. Because now he lacks the lifeline for the online administrative stuff: “Now I’m lost.” Arnoldi promotes a “popular movement against Internet tyranny”.
There have been no significant political or ethical debates in Denmark either when the online obligation to authorities was introduced in 2014 or during the rapid further development since then. But that is about to change. The lawyer Birgitte Arent Eiriksson from the think tank “Justitia” gave a well-noticed impetus with her report “Legal certainty for the digitally disadvantaged”: 20 to 25 percent of the population could not sufficiently exercise their own rights and their legal certainty was threatened because the complex The state’s online requirements cannot be met (see interview).
Digitization in Denmark: People are socially left behind
In the series The Digital Underclass, Politiken has presented often surprising examples of the problems faced by the digitally disabled, starting with Instagram- and TikTok-accustomed teenagers. They stand at a loss in front of the official notifications in bureaucratic slang from their Eboks. Significant cognitive, psychological or other barriers can be found in all age groups, all in all according to the new estimates in around one million out of a total of 5.8 million people in Denmark. These also include those for whom the purchase of a laptop and the indispensable smartphone or tablet puts a heavy strain on the cash register.
The hardest hit is old people, about whom my wife Ellen, who mocks me, tells of her everyday life in a geriatric hospital near Copenhagen: “It’s always the same. Without the help of relatives, they are lost in the digitization jungle.” For many, that is humiliating. The words of Finance Minister Nicolaj Wammen when the latest modernization plans were published sounded less promising: “Denmark is a digital pioneer. We still have to increase the pace.” This will further increase the quality of public service, free up manpower and “accelerate the green transition”.
Katrin Lester from the Seniors’ Association sees other consequences: “In the race for ever greater effectiveness, digitization is a miracle weapon that the state, municipalities and others use to save money and time by shifting tasks onto citizens.” The 3F union is currently conducting a model case for the 64-year-old worker Alexander Bergstrom, who was denied the equivalent of 800 euros in sick pay. He had missed a reporting deadline sent via Eboks. Bergstrom is completely dependent on the computer for help from his wife, who was out of town at the time.
Digital Denmark: Improvement promised before the elections
I belong to the solidly secured middle class that benefits from thoroughly digitized Denmark. We are the majority that the state-supporting parties do not want to alienate at any price. Finance Minister Wammen means us when he feels certain that “danskerne”, the Danes, “continue to have confidence in the digitized society”. Elections are now upon us. After the well-received summer reports about the digitally suspended, the Social Democrat felt compelled to promise “better help”.
At the same time, a photo of the 87-year-old actress Ghita Nørby in front of her laptop and smartphone in her hand was emblazoned on the front page of “Politiken”. The grand old lady of Danish film, who is still active on stage, sums up her personal experiences with login procedures, software updates and hour-long telephone queues at the “Bürgerservice” as follows: “Digitization has made Denmark inhumane.” She’s right. But during the Corona period I was very happy to live in a thoroughly digitized country.