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Swiss Digital Id Law: Challenges And Opportunities

On March 7th, 2021, Switzerland is preparing for a vote regarding a new digital ID law. Nicolas Bürer, Managing Director of digitalswitzerland, entrepreneur and industry expert, shares his opinion on this initiative and brings clarity to some key aspects of what the digital ID law represents.


What is the idea behind eID and why is eID not an electronic passport?

The first question is really fundamental, why do we need that eID law? Today we have hundreds of “organic logins” which you use for ecommerce, city platforms, or other places to log in using different accounts. None of them is guaranteed by the state. And that’s exactly what the eID law would like to put on the market – implementing a digital identity which is certified and guaranteed by the Swiss state.

It is a huge debate whether eID is a passport. And to be honest, we will see in 10 years. We have to understand that eID will be created to authenticate users only in the digital space on some important Swiss-based pages, and cannot be used in analogue (real) world, for example while traveling abroad.

How can digital identity improve daily lives of users?

The big advantage of this law is implementing one single ID which can be used on different Swiss platforms such as state, city and canton services pages, or even ecommerce sites.

It is also crucial to add that it is important to be authenticated by the state for both sides. To give one example with ecommerce, a customer needs to be 18 years old to buy spirits. Today it’s quite easy to bend the rules on some ecommerce sites and say that you reached the legal age to purchase spirits. With the eID, customers’ age will be state proven. This will bring a solid basis for identity verification on the internet, and the ecommerce will become more transparent, reliable and simple with Swiss state guaranteed identity of everyone in the country. 

Under the proposed legislation, digital Identity providers will be private firms, and not the state. Why will private profit-oriented companies be given such power? Do you find it to be a problem?

That’s the big question during the debates, and the opinions diverge very quickly depending on whether you’re right or left.

This law has been developed for more than five years, and the parliament has found that the state does not have to do everything alone. The technological development in the digital space is extremely fast changing. The users are used to having attractive easy to use digital platforms such as Spotify, Netflix, Uber, and other perfect solutions. 

In this law, the state is still the guarantor of the identity, even though it will not develop the technical solution itself and will give it to the market. This includes some private Swiss companies or even cantons and cities who have the capacity to develop their own architecture and solutions to provide identity – we call them IDP – ID provider. I love this solution, I believe it’s the future, because the private companies or even the cantons are closer to the users than the state. That’s why I fear if this is just a state-based solution, it won’t be friendly to us and will cost a lot of money, as we already had such a bad experience 10 years ago. By allowing the market to have a competition and allowing privately held companies and regions to apply as ID provider I am convinced that we will have very user friendly and simple solutions on the market. 

At the end of the day, when such law is being developed, you don’t want to have only 10% of the population using us, you want to have 80%+. This is why you would rather have an excellent solution on the market, and this is what this law wants to enable.

Many people from the industry argue that eID law is far from being technically perfect and might bring more challenges that benefits. Why do you think it is still important to implement digital ID in Switzerland now?

It’s a wrong debate, because the law doesn’t say anything about technology – which is a big advantage. This law is about putting certain legal rights about data protection, the role of the state and the role of the ID providers. But it doesn’t say anything about technology. I agree with some points in these debates, we don’t want to have one centralised database, but rather different ID providers, and a decentralised architecture. It is not so easy, but there are some solutions out there and I am convinced that thanks to this law in 2-3 years we might have one provider offering such decentralised solution. If we don’t have this law today, we will not have state guaranteed identities. Today, the internet, as I always say, is a bit like a far west – we have many logins, the data doesn’t always stay in the country and goes abroad, and we do not know how it is treated. 

And again, this is a big advantage of this law not to include any technology. Two years ago, when this law was finished, we were in pre-Coronavirus times. Since then, the technologies changed dramatically. And in five years from now, there will be more technologies developed. Putting any technology in the law would be a fatal mistake. Let’s leave the market working on the best technology and the best user-oriented solution.

Is Switzerland following the path of other highly digitalized governments such as Denmark and Estonia, or does Switzerland have its own way through the 4th industrial revolution?

I believe that Switzerland is late, we have a huge delay in terms of e-governance. We have many other strengths in many rankings: in the last 12 months we took the top places regarding entrepreneurship, innovation, including the last digital ranking of IMD. There is one rating where we are far behind the best which is e-governance. I believe it will change in the next decade, as we are aware of the situation in Switzerland. During the coronavirus outbreak, we’ve seen how bad we are in the technology between the city and the citizens. The latest example of it is how bad we are just showcasing, analysing, aggregating data of vaccines. 

We have one fantastic thing in Switzerland, but the terms of e-governance it’s a disadvantage – it is our decentralised structure, our Federalisms. Due to this structure, the cantons and the regions have a lot of power to decide on various topics, which takes more time than in top-down organized countries. I believe we have to move fast in terms of e-governance in Switzerland, and the first step we have to put in place is the eID law. There are many things such as e-voting and e-health to follow, but the fundamental basis is having a law for the identity in the digital space.

What are the main barriers to boost e-governance in Switzerland?

Decentralisation and Federalisms, clearly. Having such a direct democracy makes Switzerland almost unique worldwide, and we should keep it forever. But this eID law example shows how slow the process of digitalization becomes. We took a lot of time to find the right way of operating digital identity in Switzerland, then we had a referendum, then we have another session. And in some other countries, a president or a Prime Minister will make a decision and implement a law. Don’t understand me wrong, this is not what I wish. Direct Democracy is a fantastic tool and should be kept forever, but this is sometimes a disadvantage, especially in the digital space where everything goes so fast. 

I really hope that the eID law will be accepted, and I believe we can move to the next topics towards digitalization of Switzerland. We need to have the state, the regions, and the cantons, the civil society and the economy together tackling this challenge of e-governance. It is more complicated in Switzerland than in other countries, but we are aware of the mistakes we have previously done, and we are ready to move ahead in next couple of years.

Interviewed by Margaryta Pugach, Research and Design Associate at ONResearch.

Nicolas Bürer

Nicolas Bürer

Managing Director at digitalswitzerland / Entrepreneur & Investor