TALLINN - Estonians reckon that if the Internet had a hometown, it would be located somewhere within the borders of their electronically advanced Baltic state, reports EU Observer. Estonia made the headlines in 2000, an e-lifetime ago, when it introduced a ‘paperless government.’ Since then, the 1.3 million-strong nation has remained a pioneer among EU member states when it comes to the e-society.
Estonian parents check the academic progress of their children online. Estonia’s e-police are just a click a way from knowing whether the car you are driving has valid insurance or is due for a road safety test. Doctors write electronic prescriptions. And would-be entrepreneurs can electronically register a new business in under 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, Estonians no longer “go” to the bank at all; they “log on” to it. Only tourists buy paper tickets for the public transport system (everyone else does it via the Internet and the use of their obligatory electronic ID card or their mobile phone). And all can vote electronically.
Economy Minister Johan Parts says the country’s quick advances in all things e-society is due to the fact that the IT revolution coincided with when Estonia was rebuilding itself as an independent state after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. “We started very early using the best possible technology, when compared to older or Western European countries who have to change very traditional ways of working and managing citizens,” he said.
Practical measures, including the fact that everyone has an electronic ID card and a business-friendly climate, help shore up the natural advantage of being a young state. Parts, previously Estonia’s prime minister, brushes off concerns that further advances with the Internet and e-society could lead to a jobless recovery - unemployment in Estonia is running at over 17 percent, as technology progresses though not bringing a wealth of jobs with it.
“E-society and all these services make government effective, make government transparent and they bring citizens closer and we can’t say that these initiatives should stop, because they are more efficient and we are maybe losing jobs - that cannot be an argument,” he says.
“It is much easier to be successful in the global arena when you are working on IT, or all the things relating to e-issues, than physical exports,” he said, noting that re-training graduates to give them the specialist IT skills required for a well-functioning e-society is one of the biggest problems.
The other area of concern is cyber-security. In 2007, Estonia had the dubious honor of becoming the first country in the world to be subject to a cyber attack, widely suspected to have been orchestrated by Russia. Since then, the University of Tartu and Tallinn University of Technology offer a master’s degree in cyber-defense. In June this year, a special government agency will be established to deal with cyber-security.
But Parts notes that the borderless nature of cyber-crime means European co-operation in this area is essential, something that is as yet fairly nascent. “Here we are in the very beginning, both at the EU and the global level.”
More broadly, his message to the European Commission is that it should stop treating the internal market and the digital market as two different things: “The internal market should be digitized.”
To get to this point, the legal infrastructure (allowing for e-signatures, e-commerce and privacy) has to be set up, as well as an environment where e-identification is widespread and that can be used across all member states. “We have to make possible that e-ID is accepted in all countries in the same way. This means if you have Estonian e-identification, you can do everything in Germany, in Portugal, in Italy, in Finland.
“That is not the case for now. It needs a very real action plan,” he says.