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Home » Baltic, Focus

21st Century E-Opportunities

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 15:18

By Urmas Paet, Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs

Estonia has chosen to become an e-state. This is a course that we neither want to nor can reverse. E-governance is part of a wide range of reforms that we began twenty years ago. This has brought us a lot of success. But first and foremost, it has brought us freedom to shape our own future. Whereas all countries have unique aims, e-solutions are a universal means. This is why I would like to highlight some key questions in this field based on Estonia’s example.

E-governance, e-solutions

Our experience with e-solutions has been positive. Estonia has an e-government cabinet, e-health and school services, an e-land-registry, mobile parking, and pre-filed online tax returns. Around 98% of all bank transactions in Estonia are done online. As are about 90% of tax declarations. Establishing a company online takes just 15 minutes. The National Portal – eesti.ee – brings hundreds of e-services together into one easily accessible place.

In Estonia, Internet voting or e-elections took place for the very first time in 2005. The system allows voters to cast their ballots from anywhere in the world as long as they are connected to a computer with Internet access. In the 2011 parliamentary elections 24.3% of voters cast their ballots over the Internet. Ensuring complete anonymity goes without saying and has been proven possible. Despite the fears of sceptics, Estonia is proof of the fact that e-solutions can effectively operate without there being any threat of an Orwellian system coming into being. The system is developed in a way which on the one hand ensures complete anonymity of the individual user, who, on the other hand, is in full, and sole, control of his or her own data.

Estonia’s success in the field of ICT and e-solutions demonstrates the positive use to which technology can be put. All this means less bureaucracy, lower costs, and more security. Citizen participation and awareness have grown. Yes, Facebook can be used to topple governments, but governments like Estonia’s use Facebook to serve our citizens. For instance, the latest step that we took in Estonia was to start using Facebook to enhance citizens’ access to consular services.

Cybercrime and cyber security

There are, of course, also dangers. Relying on e-solutions makes us vulnerable. Although you cannot bribe a computer, computers can be hijacked. Rapid development is not only about whether you have the latest iPhone or tablet. It also goes for cyber-attacks. There is a clear need to be prepared for much more than DDoS attacks. Today, critical industry and physical infrastructure are at risk as the vulnerability of Scada systems has become more and more obvious. Governments and the private sector have to co-operate in order to significantly improve the security of energy, water and other everyday infrastructure. Moreover, questions related to immigration, terrorism, radicalization, and many others link directly to the online world.

In 2011 Estonia established a Cyber Defence League that is made up of voluntary experts from both the private and public sectors. Their role is to contribute to the country’s cyber security. The CDL has helped safeguard e-elections, has provided training, taken part in national and international exercises, and counselled businesses. In co-operation with the Estonian Information System’s Authority, they have also tested the cyber security of businesses. This is an example of successful and mutually beneficial co-operation between the private and public sectors. In Tallinn, there is also NATO’s Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. The Centre develops new concepts and strategies and carries out training, exercise and awareness raising activities.

Cyber threats illustrate how domestic security issues increasingly overlap with classic defence. The more of what we do in our daily lives goes online, the more important cyber security becomes. What goes on in the cyber world has very real consequences in the physical world. But I am convinced that these challenges are only natural and can be overcome.

Internet freedom

Let us return to the benefits which certainly weigh up the difficulties. Internet freedom is central in making people’s lives better. Estonia is convinced that that freedom of expression has to apply regardless of the medium used to convey the message. For three years in a row Freedom House has rated Estonia as the country with the freest internet in the world.

Last December Estonia joined a coalition led by the Netherlands that seeks to promote Internet freedom around the globe. Estonia has also decided to prioritize and promote Internet freedom in the UN’s Human Rights Council during our membership from 2013 to 2015.

And finally: What next? I believe the next step is to put an “e” into the EU. The Single Market is one of the EU’s greatest achievements. But we also need a digital single market. This is one of the ways to increase Europe’s competitiveness, and to unleash the economic growth that Europe so badly needs. If we do the right things, and do them together, there is much to gain.