Digital driving licences, digital authorizations, e-prescriptions... the list of demands for Germany's digital transformation is long. Unfortunately, however, all too often aspiration collides with reality because Germany is lagging far behind in terms of digitalisation. The best example is fax as a means of communication. Fax has been out of date for a long time and does not meet today's requirements, not even those for data protection (cue GDPR). However, it is still in use so widely that in the 2021 federal election campaign a political party rubbed salt into the wound by advertising the phasing out of faxes by 2038.
A short journey through time: what exactly is fax and what is it used for?
The first fax machines in Germany appeared in the 1970s but it took until the end of the 1980s for the fax to establish itself in offices. In the 1990s, it was widely used in companies before it was increasingly superseded by email.
Older people may be familiar with the concept of fax but for younger people in particular, fax is often an alien concept – they have either never heard of fax or do not know what it is all about.
Fax machines: also barely in use and declining in numbers internationally.
Therefore, a short review: The fax machine was used to send documents over the telephone network. A document was placed in the fax sender’s feeder and then transmitted via the telephone network (radio is also possible) directly to the recipient's fax machine. These devices, which were only designed for faxing, thus had a very manageable range of functions. Over the course of time, they were mostly replaced by multifunctional devices in which faxing was included alongside scanning, copying, and printing.
Nowadays, virtual fax servers are commonplace where a fax can also be sent from a PC to the recipient’s fax machine. Incoming fax messages are converted into emails and then delivered to email inboxes. The shift to this online method saves paper and the walk to the fax machine. On the other hand, the transmission path here is no longer directly from machine to machine.
Where is the fax still in use?
Today faxes are rarely used in private households. Fax-capable devices in the home are more of a relic because multifunction devices often also have a rarely used fax function. In business the fax is playing an increasingly minor role, and for most companies its use has continued to decline in recent years.
COVID-19: a massive catalyst for enterprises pushing their digital communication.
Nevertheless, in Germany the fax is still an important pillar for communication in some industries. It is still used in the legal sector, by public authorities, and also in the health sector.
Example 1: Additional effort due to fax (report by SWR on this topic in German)
Hospitals in the state of Baden-Württemberg are faxing their bed occupancy with Corona patients to the health authorities because even after more than a year and a half of the pandemic, there is no digital interface. There are plans at the federal level for establishing one, but, as so often the case in matters of digitalisation in Germany, a concrete date for this has not yet been set. The particularly absurd thing: The data is already available electronically, as the occupancy of the intensive care unit is forwarded daily to two different registers. These two registers are (how could it be any different?) not synchronised with each other which already means an avoidable additional effort for the hospital staff. Faxing, however, necessitates a media break on top of this: the relevant data must first be transferred from the hospital system to a report form before it can then be forwarded by fax. Additional effort is really the last thing staff need these days.
Example 2: Fax in conflict with data protection (YouTube video by NDR on this topic in German)
A political party from Hamburg, Germany, wanted to participate in the 2021 Bundestag elections but was rejected by the Federal Election Commissioner. There were only four days to appeal this decision in the German Federal Constitutional Court (BVG). The postal route would therefore take too long and email was not accepted by the BVG (BVG: "The fax preserves the legal written form. Electronic transmission is currently not provided for by law."). So only the fax remained as the accepted means of communication. Alas! The party did not have a fax machine and had to use one in a copy shop for the transfer. The BVG's urgent ruling on the appeal was then transmitted to the party by post and additionally by fax – to the same fax number from which the appeal had been transferred to the BVG. The fax from the Federal Constitutional Court was ultimately sent to the copy shop.
The risks of fax use
As easy as faxing was for users, it was easy for numerical errors to creep in when typing the recipient's number; as a result, the confidential document went to the wrong addressee. Once the fax was gone, it could no longer be reversed. And even if the fax number entered was correct, who actually got to see the fax on the recipient's side ultimately depended on who was standing at the fax machine in question at the time. There was therefore no question of comprehensible confidentiality.
Even the more modern fax transmission methods do not offer effective data protection: when faxes are converted into emails, the sender can neither enforce nor find out that this is done in encrypted form. The transmission is therefore not GDPR-compliant. Thus, it is no wonder that in Germany, the Bremen State Data Protection Commissioner has denied the fax GDPR compliance (link to original article in German). How this computes with the German Federal Constitutional Court sending a fax to a copy shop probably only makes sense to a select few.
For enterprises, fax is therefore not a data protection-compliant means of transfer, at least since the GDPR has come into force; especially since a company's own business secrets and intellectual property are not transmitted by fax in a way that protects them from unauthorised third parties.
Why is the fax still in the headlines today?
Due to the almost farcical reports about the fax and its use in Germany, the topic of digital communication has received increased media attention in recent months. Many people were probably surprised by how often the fax is still in use in important areas such as healthcare and public authorities in 2021.
A major reason for this is probably the simple fact that fax is established and is therefore already available for use. Since digitalisation has been implemented so slowly in many areas in recent years there is probably also a simple lack of an alternative. In other words, faxing "await[s] only those who do not react to life".
Adding to the headline-grabbing effect, the fax issue all too easily joins the ranks of other efforts that have cast an unflattering light on the progress of digitalisation in Germany in recent months. Some examples:
- As the website ‘Heise’, a renowned source for IT news, reported (link to original article in German), the introduction phase for the e-prescription was postponed; it should have started in October 2021. At the same time, the introduction obligation will start in January 2022.
- According to another report by ‘Heise’ (link to original article in German), the app "ID Wallet" for the digital driving licence was taken out of the app stores after only one week. A high number of user requests had led to technical difficulties shortly after launch. One might think a victim of its own success, but security experts also cited concerns about the app's infrastructure and blockchain technology shortly afterwards.
- In the ‘Digitalisation Monitor 2021’ (link to original report in German), commissioned by the FDP parliamentary group and conducted by the opinion research institute Forsa, 94% of German citizens feel there are "major deficits" in the digitalisation of public administration. 86% of citizens are willing to use services of public authorities online, even if they have had no experience with them so far; at the same time, 88% think that politics is doing too little to prepare the population in Germany "for the digital age and the associated consequences".
- In a report by the Scientific Advisory Board of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) from spring 2021 with the topic 'Digitalisation in Germany – Lessons from the Corona Crisis' (link to original report in German), criticism was particularly evident towards public administration and the education system. It says on page 21:
Germany has structures, processes and ways of thinking in public administration that seem, in some cases, archaic. Digital transformation falters if there are no role models. The political and administrative leadership of organisations must want digital transformation and be prepared to effectively communicate the urgency of transformation to the respective organisation.
- According to survey results from the digital association Bitkom (link to original article in German), one fifth of doctors in Germany still use the fax for communication.
However, it is not the fax itself that should be ridiculed – that would fall short of the mark. The fax was a well-functioning and legitimate solution for the needs of the time and had its raison d'être. It also successfully established itself on a broad scale and was able to score in terms of intuitive usability in a way that many modern communication solutions can only dream of, and it was fast. Anyone who has ever sent a fax still knows how to do it decades later and as it turns out, you can still benefit from this in Germany even in the year 2021.
What is ridiculous is the fact that the fax still has to be used for so many communication processes in Germany, and that it has not been successfully replaced by other solutions in all these years, or even decades. The requirements for communication solutions are fundamentally different today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It is difficult to explain to European neighbours from the Netherlands or Estonia that in 2021, Germany still has to resort to the fax to communicate bed occupancy of hospitals in the Corona crisis. At the same time, the fax is also a symbol of how Germany is not in the driving seat when it comes to digitalisation. Germany is far too often being driven by its processes as opposed to actively shaping its digitalisation.
How can the fax be replaced successfully?
Fax certainly had its justification and its role in communication – but these are in the past. For most purposes in today's business world it has become obsolete. On the one hand, fax lags behind the requirements of the digital era in terms of functionality, on the other hand, it is not data protection-compliant and thus a risk that opens companies up to litigation and endangers the company's own intellectual property.
Just a matter of weeks: enterprises moved quickly to accelerate their digitalisation after the initial COVID-19 lockdown.
In the digital age, fax cannot be the last word. It is time to bring proven options into widespread use. In many areas of digitalisation, it is incumbent upon political stakeholders to be drivers as well as enablers supporting companies in their digitalisation processes. They equally need to serve as trailblazers paving the way for digitalisation by making its value tangible for citizens – not least through a successfully digitalised public administration. There needs to be a reimagination and rethinking in which familiar structures are questioned and reviewed, even if it ultimately means that familiar processes end up on the chopping block. As already cited, the report of the Scientific Advisory Board states on page 24:
Germany's lagging behind in digitalisation is often not so much due to a lack of financial resources or market failure, but to various forms of organisational failure. [...] Digital transformation must go hand in hand with a reform of organisations and processes. Established laws and ways of organising need to be reviewed and reformed for their suitability in a digital world.
An international phenomenon: citizens, particularly digital natives, see the promotion of digitalisation as a governmental task.
Precisely because the fax is also a reflection of the digitalisation efforts in Germany to date, it is high time that modern digital communication is finally reworked. After all, our European neighbours have shown that there is a life after the fax. Particularly in those sectors where faxing is still widely used (often due to a lack of an alternative), modern communication solutions must be established that are GDPR-compliant, easy to use, secure in exchange, and save considerable effort in everyday work. They must also enable linking with other systems via APIs and thus bring real added value in terms of automation. Unless we want to teach the youth in Germany how to fax so that they are equipped for a professional future in their own country, but nowhere else.
As can be heard from the current coalition negotiations in Germany, the FDP (Liberal Democratic Party) is pushing for a digital ministry. At any rate, there would be enough work. Perhaps the new federal government will manage to hit it big in the digital transformation and contribute to the successful replacement of the fax machine. Perhaps even before 2038.