Fixing Online Forms Shouldn’t Wait Until Retirement

A new Unding Survey is investigating discrimination in online forms. But operators are already getting angry emails. Behind some: a recently retired IT consultant with one of the most common surnames in the world and 30 years experience of not being able to sign up.

Back in June 2013, when a single Bitcoin cost around 50 Euros, there was one place in Germany to go and get it. 

Cryptocurrency exchange Bitcoin.de had its office in Herford, a quaint city in North Rhine-Westphalia. When a reporter from Handelsblatt showed up in 2015 and asked to see the server used for day-to-day trading, founder Oliver Flaskämper wouldn't show him. 

Two years earlier, Bitcoin.de’s tech was already hard to get at. When IT consultant Clemens Li, who, after reading “bitcoin, bitcoin, bitcoin” in the papers, googling the price and deciding “All right then, let me invest”, tried to register, the online form did not accept his last name. 

“What a shame, I’d be rich today,” Li says of the incident. Now at 67 years old, Li is retired. But he is still concerned about a lot of “terrible software” that he’s seen. “The people who wrote it are ignorant. One must remain alert.” 

In June 2013, Li tried to complain to the elusive Bitcoin.de office. He couldn’t reach anyone. In 2015, the Handelsblatt reporter wrote, the office had “only a few employees” because “most of it was automatic.” Six months later, on December 20, 2013, Li finally received an email from the Bitcoin.de support team, asking Li to “register your name “Li.” (with a full stop attached)” because “our system mandatorily prescribes three characters.” Li refused.

“In the last 30 years, I have repeatedly had problems with what simple-minded people perceive to be my somewhat short surname,” Li says. He has been called Li for circa 35 years. He got married in Shanghai in 1989 and took his wife’s name after they moved to Germany together and had their first child. 

Fast forward to March 2020, where a new business called EWE Go were lending their E-Scooters for free to essential workers in the city of Oldenburg, where Clemens Li lives. In June, Li tried to sign up to the scooter share app, but it wouldn’t register his last name. 

Again, Li wrote an email of complaint. In late July, he received a reply from EWE Go that said “thank you for your feedback” and “we will fix the mistake in our app as soon as possible.” Two weeks later, another email: “Hi Clemens, please excuse us, unfortunately we haven’t been able to work out a definitive solution with the service provider. Please fill in the field ‘Last name’ with your first and last name.” 

Once again, Li refused to fill out his name incorrectly. Instead, he emailed the developers back, accusing them of being racist “for discriminating a good fourth of humanity.” (Li is one of the most common surnames in the world, shared by 100 million people worldwide.) In 2020, Li also emailed software provider Buhl Data, asking them to let him know the date by which they would fix their system to register last names with less than three characters: “It’s very easy to fix mistakes in online forms.” 

Li says he knows the real problem. Often, software engineers only test their software on themselves before releasing it. “And then they don’t even reply to emails from people saying that they can’t use the software. If they don’t care, that’s discrimination.” To illustrate his concern, Li hums a few lines from a hit song that the 80s German comedian Mike Krüger wrote after being unable to open a mustard tube and declaring that “almost everything is packaged nowadays and hard to open.” 

In October 2020, Li received a reply from an EWE Go senior manager, announcing that EWE had adjusted their sign-up form to accept his last name. “I am contacting you again because we at EWE are clearly against racism and discrimination of any kind!” the manager wrote, attaching an article about EWE’s anti-discrimination work. “This clarification is very important to me, as ‘racists’ is an extreme accusation, which we vehemently oppose!”

At the moment, Bitcoin is trading at 36,993 Euros. Meanwhile, Li is still raising awareness. His latest success was to fix a viewing error on the online calendar for a vaccine campaign in Hamburg.


Does any of this sound familiar to you? If you've had trouble with online forms in the past, had to fill out wrong information to get ahead or even couldn't use the service, take part in our survey at Unding.de (in German) and help us get to the bottom of the issue.

Josephine Lulamae

Reporter

Photo: Julia Bornkessel, CC BY 4.0
Josephine Lulamae is a reporter and editor at AlgorithmWatch. Prior to that she has worked as a paralegal and journalist in Berlin, Bristol and Mytilene. He work has been published in in outlets including The Daily Beast, Coda Story, The New Republic, Gizmodo, Popula, Slate and Quartz. She has a law degree from BPP University and a bachelors degree in Philosophy from Cambridge University.