As nations go, Estonia is a comparatively tiny country, with a population of just 1.3 million, but it has plans to become one of the most digitally accessible countries in the world – and it may well achieve them.
“We thought this might be a chance to increase our population from 1.3 million to 10 million, at least,” says Taavi Kotka.
Kotka, Estonia’s chief information officer, is talking about the country’s e-residency scheme – a world first – which exists to provide a “transnational digital identity available to anyone in the world”. A scheme that he says up to five other countries are looking to replicate.
At the time of writing, the e-residency project has just come out of its beta stage and has been fully live for two months. During the 60 days more than 4,000 people have signed up to become members, doubling the target number that was set for twelve months. Kotka may be getting carried away when he suggests that “hundreds of thousands, or millions will come after three or four years” but there is an element of truth to his words when he says that the scheme has “already found its place in history”.
By paying a paltry 50 euro fee anyone, anywhere in the world, is able to become an e-Estonian. You don’t become a resident of the country and it doesn’t allow any rights to move to the country, but it allows you to become a digital citizen and, as such, removes some national borders.
The rights given to honorary Estonians include being able to digitally sign document and contracts, establish an Estonian company online, encrypt and send secure documents, administer the company from anywhere in the world, conduct e-banking, and more. Those that sign up, once they have been vetted by police, are given a digital identification and smart ID card which allows them to use the services.
If e-residency is as successful as those behind it hope, it has the potential to change the way we think about our governments, and how we may interact with others around the world.
Creating a world nation
There’s no doubt that in the last 20 years the Internet has made the world an infinitely smaller place. To see this you only have to look at a service like Skype – which was, incidentally, created by Estonian engineers – to see how much easier it is to connect with people anywhere in the world. One area that has, in many places, been slow to adapt to the digital age is government. A report from the Digital Government Review at the end of 2014 reflected the slow adoption of digital democracy, stating: “Policymakers still tend to treat the ‘digital world’ as distinct from real life”.
For example, in the US, to make a request for official information, many federal departments still require postal letters to be sent. Meanwhile in the UK, when I was trying to update a driving licence with a new address recently, I had to provide my passport number, tax identity, five years of previous addresses, date of birth and other information on the relevant government agency’s website for my identity to be recognised.
If you approach an Estonian with a paper contract they will be suspicious
This is where Kotka and Estonia believe they are leading the way with technology. Being able to have one official identity, which allows use of all services, makes it easy for an individual to engage in a democracy. And, the way that Estonia sees it, why you should have to rely on your own government for this identity?
“Many countries will follow, I already know around five who have said that they will copy it in one or another way,” Kotka says.
“The e-residency, as a term was invented here and it will spread all around the world quite soon. Think about it like Uber, you can basically buy the service you need from whoever wants to do that. Government, they actually like that.
“I think it creates competition between the governments, that they actually have to step out from their comfort zone and start thinking about how they have to provide a service to their own people. That’s obviously one win that we can see.”
Growing digital rights
Despite the slow adoption of technology and digital rights by some countries, those that have embraced or are beginning to embrace technology are finding it to be beneficial.
The development of e-Residency hasn’t cost the country any money either, Kotka says, as it is built on Estonia’s existing – and impressive – digital democracy. A brief look into the enhanced services that e-residency is derived from shows that Estonians have e-police, e-prescriptions, e-schools (where parents can interact with teachers to develop the learning process), e-tax and many more online services.
Kotka goes as far to say: “If you approach an Estonian with a paper contract they will be suspicious, we can’t understand why you use this inefficient, old fashioned and non-environmentally friendly method.” Based on this it isn’t unfair to say that Estonia is likely to have one of the most advanced online democracies in the world.
It’s free of charge for the government and what it means is we can’t fail with this project
But the Estonia isn’t the only country to embrace new ways to give its citizens more access to the services their taxes pay for.
A small town in Spain is using social media, Twitter specifically, as the main tool for communication with its citizens. The mayor of Jun, José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, tries to get his citizens to register their Twitter accounts with the local town hall, and from here they can use it to speak to officials.
“In the most basic scenario, a citizen who has a question, request or complaint tweets it to the mayor or one of his staff, who work to resolve the matter,” said MIT researchers who visited the town. They saw the mayor handle a query about a broken streetlight and mention the electrician who then fixed the light the next day.
The town’s officials aren’t the only ones around the world who use Twitter to speak to citizens but by doing choosing it as a primary method of communication they’re giving the people a choice of how to communicate. Another new initiative is demonstrated by a London council that allows residents to scan a QR code on a bin to let officials know it is full.
Italy, meanwhile, has just introduced a new Declaration of Internet Rights which places importance on all citizens being able to access the Internet, information being freely published and a fair Internet being available to all.
It can’t fail
As the discussion with Kotka draws to a close, he sounds perplexed as to why he hasn’t been asked about what is in it for Estonia.
“The obvious question is what the Estonian government actually gets if we don’t tax you? That’s the normal question,” he muses.
The way he poses this makes it clear that it is something he has had to field many times before. At this point he has mentioned, more than once, that there are no tax benefits for those wanting to file a company in Estonia – the country only collects taxes for physical properties or employees based in the country.
But now it’s clear that Estonia isn’t in this scheme for money – although it does hope economic benefits will come from allowing more businesses to interact with the country – there is an overarching foresight to the idea and the country has initiated to reap other benefits.
“It has basically cost us nothing. It’s free of charge for the government and what it means is we can’t fail with this project,” Kotka says. “If companies here in Estonia the government will also be enriched, that’s the main idea behind it.”
What comes as a close second is being able to serve people.
The ideal of being able to provide a service to people, which their own countries do not provide and by doing so raising the reputation of a small nation, and to be a leader in a project that could help bring the world closer together, is seemingly worth more than money alone.