President Toomas Ilves has helped make Estonia one of the most digitally advanced nations on earth through progressive policies that invested heavily in the future.
Q: Estonia has been described as “the most tech-savvy country on earth” and is an enviable model of digital governance, offering government e-services in voting, banking, healthcare, transportation, and education. How did Estonia become a leader in digital governance?
President Toomas Ilves: It was a long process that began with an understanding that in order to modernize, Estonia had to adopt the latest technology and forward looking policies. Ultimately it was a matter of political leadership in a succession of governments over 25 years and an “early adopter” mentality among the populace, stemming from a desire to become a modern society after half a century of Soviet backwardness. Leadership, a willingness to take political risks as well as a realization that uptake would be quickest with the government offering far better services through digitization, all added up to Estonia’s lead today.
The first step toward widespread digitization came with the “Tiger leap” program for Estonian schools: to equip them with computer labs and to get them all online. This was completed as early as 1997.
Estonia passed a digital signature law that made digitally signed documents legally equivalent to traditional signatures
Equally important were private sector initiatives, with Estonian banks at the lead. Realizing the enormous savings of online banking, the banks, together with the government and civil society backing, initiated an education campaign for older and rural citizens, “Look@World” that taught those less familiar with modern technology how to use computers. Free internet access points – public access computer rooms and later Wi-Fi hotspots were put up in schools or municipal offices country-wide.
Online tax filing, initiated in 1995, also played a part in convincing citizens that internet-based services are simpler, faster and more convenient than traditional paper methods.
With these steps as a basis, in 2000-2001 Estonia passed a digital signature law that made digitally signed documents legally equivalent to traditional signatures, and more importantly issued chip-based digital identity cards to all residents of the country. These identity cards are mandatory for everyone 16 and over.
These steps in turn gave the private sector incentives to develop online services. With all residents in possession of a digital identity, Estonia’s private sector saw digital services as an opportunity that companies in countries without a mandatory digital ID treated as an option.
Clearly and equally important was the software architecture of Estonia’s e-governance: Estonian engineers created an open-source, non-proprietary distributed data exchange architecture, the “X-road” that, combined with a strong two-factor authentication process of identification, provided a significantly more secure and robust digital infrastructure than in other countries.
If anything citizens have become more demanding: people are used to quick and prompt interactions and become annoyed when interactions are not prompt.
The Estonian Parliamentary Election of 2007 was the world's first nationwide vote where part of the voting was carried out in the form of remote electronic voting via the internet. However, other countries have shied away from electronic voting over concerns about the potential for fraud and hacking. What can other nations learn from the Estonian experience with e-voting? In your own view, was it a success and should it be expanded?
Estonia’s experience is almost impossible to compare to what is called “e-voting” elsewhere, where it is taken to mean using electronic voting machines. Estonia uses its two-factor authentication identification [eds note: authentication with two devices, such as a smartphone and a personal computer, for increased security]. About one-third of voters now cast their ballots online. Initial concerns that voting would be skewed in favor of younger, more urban (and politically liberal) voters have not been borne out by the evidence. Online voting with the Estonian system also enables a country with relatively few diplomatic representations to allow citizens to vote abroad, worldwide.
Technology has already completely transformed the way your government offers services to its citizens, and in turn, how your citizens offer feedback to the government. What effect has this had on the relationship between the government and the people of Estonia? Has it helped improve the relationship and restore public trust?
I am not sure trust has needed to be restored. Rather, the system is predicated on trust. With no “backdoors”, and with hundreds of millions of secure, highly encrypted transactions with no breaches, people trust the system. If anything citizens have become more demanding: people are used to quick and prompt interactions and become annoyed when interactions are not prompt, forgetting that in even the most advanced countries the same paper-based procedures can take weeks, not minutes. In other words, Estonians quickly have adapted to the new system and take it for granted, at least until they spend time abroad.
Events like the Refugee Crisis have demonstrated the porous nature of borders and, perhaps, the outdated models of citizenship. How do you see the role of citizenship, borders, and nation states evolving during the 21st century?
A universal or interoperable Estonian-style ID system in Europe would solve many of the concerns of governments (and disgruntled natives) about who is receiving which benefits where. With the eIDAS Directive, all EU governments should offer IDs to their own citizens. However, unless these are mandatory and universal, the requisite services in bureaucracies will not develop. Without these services the benefits of giving refugees an electronic identity will be limited.
Since a secure identity is key to a secure digital world, the nation-state will have to become the guarantor of identity.
Citizenship will always remain a prerogative of the nation-state. Yet the role of the nation-state in the digital age will have to change. Since a secure identity is key to a secure digital world, the nation-state will have to become the guarantor of identity. In some ways it already is, issuing passports, drivers licenses, etc. that prove the bearer is who he or she says they are. So too in the future, governments will have to become the ones to say, yes, this person is who they say they are online.
In 2014 Estonia made news worldwide by offering Digital Citizenships. What is a Digital Citizenship and what problem would such an innovation solve?
More precisely, it is Digital Residency, i.e. offering the rights of physical residents but without rights and privileges extended to citizens, e.g. voting, representation abroad. Digital residency essentially means you can sign legal contracts: open bank accounts, use the digital prescription when in Estonia, make bank transfers. Ultimately the Republic of Estonia vouchsafes you are you in the digital world.
Lawmakers and policy makers rarely understand technology and often treat it as some kind of magic: either all-powerful or darkly evil.
In addition to your work on technology, you’ve been an advocate for CC or Contemporary Civilization as part of the curriculum for every student in order to bridge the gap between the sciences and humanities. How would you like to see education embrace technology while preserving humanistic or classical education?
My concerns are those C.P. Snow discussed with regard to universities in his 1959 essay “The Two Cultures”: those in the humanities do not understand the sciences nor do scientists care much for the humanities. Today, with the all-pervasiveness of technology and the science underlying technology, C.P. Snow’s observations on the university are writ large and worldwide. Lawmakers and policy makers rarely understand technology and often treat it as some kind of magic: either all-powerful or darkly evil. Those in technology, in my experience, rarely have a firm grasp of the underpinnings of ethics or democratic principles deriving from the same Enlightenment that spurred science in the subsequent centuries to develop with such leaps and bounds.
Those who develop technology seem almost blind to accepted norms regarding privacy, freedoms and obligations.
The results of this bifurcation are plain to see. Governments, policy-makers and political leaders do not understand technology: its benefits as well as dangers. Those who develop technology seem almost blind to accepted norms regarding privacy, freedoms and obligations.
Technology has created a world of new possibilities but it also presents a number of challenges and pending crises for governments to manage. What are the most pressing challenges technology will pose in the future?
Most important, of course, is basic security of our citizens. Since so much of our daily lives and infrastructure has gone digital, the risks to our security are enormous. Power grids, communications, food supply logistics, finance and increasingly, most services can be rendered inoperable either through error or hostile actions. Privacy can be destroyed.
Security can be the greatest loser in the digital age. With wise policies, however, we can be more secure and enjoy all of the benefits of the modern world.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves recently completed his second term as the President of Estonia
Toomas Hendrik Ilves recently completed his second term as the President of Estonia