Estonia is a small country, but it’s an internet giant. Somehow, the tiny Baltic country launched one of the essential apps of Web 2.0, Skype. How did Estonia become such a significant centre of internet commerce and culture, disproportionate to its size?
The answer is that Estonia’s government is dedicated to a free internet and works hard to give all of its people internet access.
How the Soviet Union created Estonia’s approach to the internet
The pro-democracy activists who became Estonia’s first generation of post-independence politicians realized that internet access could help prevent the return of authoritarian governance.
“For young Estonians, the internet is a manifestation of something more than a service – it’s a symbol of democracy and freedom,” Linnar Viik told the Guardian. Viik is an academic and activist who was one of the main forces behind Estonia’s embrace of the internet in the 1990s.
“One reason why the Internet was used early on in Estonia,” said Viik in a separate interview, “was the government’s urge to have additional and independent windows to the international media and public. It seemed then that had someone attacked us or violated our human rights, then more than NATO tanks or McDonald’s investment Estonian independence would be better guaranteed by transparency and presence in the international media.”
Don’t just take Viik’s word for it. According to Estonia’s official emergency law, the government’s internet agency is required to keep the internet free and open in the event of force majeure – i.e. a Russian invasion or a natural disaster.
Anyone can use the internet in Estonia, anywhere
That political dedication explains why internet access is ubiquitous in Estonia. According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net rankings, Estonia has none of a possible 25 barriers to internet access, the best possible score. Estonia ranks highly in other categories and routinely ranks in the top 10 of the annual Freedom on the Net study.
Internet access is available everywhere in Estonia. According to Viik, one could walk 100 miles outside the capital and largest city, Tallinn, and never lose internet access.
What the internet does for Estonia
Estonians can access all government services on the internet via a government-issued ID card. Estonians can vote, file their taxes, make bank transfers, and electronically sign documents using the cards.
While the ID cards are popular, they made headlines for the wrong reasons at the end of 2017. The government discovered that hackers could exploit a security flaw in the ID cards. The Prime Minister, Jüri Ratas, called a dramatic emergency news conference that told Estonians about the hacking risk. According to the government, hackers were not able to steal any information because of the flaw.
However, Estonia’s faith in the ID card remains strong. Record numbers of Estonians voted online using the ID cards in 2017’s municipal elections, and the government says it will improve security and further expand internet services.
Estonia’s enthusiasm for internet services is undoubtedly boosted by the internet commerce money that has begun to fill Estonians’ wallets. The government runs a program called e-residency: Anyone in the world can establish legal residency in the country in exchange for the fee – even if they aren’t actually in Estonia.
Anyone with e-residency can obtain an Estonian digital ID card: they benefit from the legal protections of EU resident status, and they can use the card’s banking verification and digital signature features.
E-residency and the country’s other clever internet programs have helped to seed a thriving internet economy. According to Deloitte, Estonia has enjoyed substantial economic benefits from the program. Estonia also has more startups per capita than all but two EU countries.
Internet in Estonia is free, widely available, and extremely useful – and according to my company’s analysis, that could be why Estonia has such a high quality of life. Estonia’s hard work and investment in internet access and freedom has helped the country become one of the most successful post-Soviet republics.
Photograph by idefixgallier