Ask an American where Estonia is, and the answer is likely to be “Next to Westonia?” But there is a quiet revolution going on in that small nation on the Baltic Sea that is going to change how everyone accesses the Internet — E-residency. This isn’t citizenship nor legal residency, but rather it’s digital residency.
Estonia used to be part of the Soviet Union, and upon independence in 1991, it had to set up all kinds of governmental offices and services separate from Moscow. A country where checkbooks were largely unknown adopted TCP/IP-enabled web apps. As a result, it is now one of the most-wired countries in the world and the homeland of Skype.
In 2000, Estonia adopted the Digital Signatures Act, which made signing a contract electronically as binding as one signed in person on paper. In 2005, it became the first nation to allow online voting in national elections. In the 2011 election, almost a quarter of the votes were cast that way. Interaction with government at all levels is possible digitally — and it is the citizen who owns the data.
Last week, British journalist Edward Lucas, a senior editor of The Economist, received the first E-residency card in the world. What good does it do an Englishman (and Ed is very English) to have such a digital identity, to be an E-Stonian?
“The ‘Estonian Express’ card will do for the Internet what Amex did for international travel,” Ed told TheBlot Magazine. “The biggest problem we face online is that we can’t prove who we are, and we can’t check who other people are. As The New Yorker cartoon so neatly put it, ‘On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.’ A secure government-backed digital ID changes that.
“With my Estonian ID, I can sign documents, send secure authenticated e-mails and access public services all across the European Union and in other countries which recognize EU digital signatures,” he added. “This is a game-changer for individuals who can now open businesses and bank accounts in the most dynamic digital economy in Europe. It’s also great news for Estonia, which can build up a digital diaspora, perhaps many times the size of the country’s 1.3, population. When you live next to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, you need all the friends you can get.”
Ed and I were at the London School of Economics together in the early 1980s — we were members of the Union of Liberal Students. He has been a friend of Estonia and the other “prisoner” nations of the Soviet Empire for longer than that. He doesn’t like bullies, communist dictatorships or totalitarian societies. He has been harassed by the KGB and its successors repeatedly and has written extensively on the threat Putin’s Russia poses to its neighbors. He’s the kind of reporter that gives journalism a good name.
Shortly after Estonia recovered its independence, Ed befriended Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who is now president of Estonia. “I’d asked him ages ago if you ever make these cards available to foreigners, can I have the first one?” — and so it was. His E-residency card No. 1 was simply the latest in a line of well-deserved honors.
I am seriously considering E-residency myself. Currently, though, the law would require me to travel to Estonia, and I know enough about the place to know it’s a bit cold there this time of year. Either it will have to wait till things warm up or until they change the law and let me do it all online. Which is the whole point anyway.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.