When we talk about leading European nations in internet, technology and e-government, we often think of the Scandinavian countries or of Switzerland. It might therefore come as a surprise to many that Estonia has become a leader in this field.
The small Baltic country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and later joined the European Union in 2004. Focusing on the internet as a guarantee for freedom of communication made the young country invest in the internet early on. Already at the end of the 1990’s almost all schools had internet and today over forty government services are handled online, such as the filing of tax returns. You can sign legal documents and buy a beer with your smartphone and get an e-prescription from your doctor. Cabinet meetings are paperless since years in the country which is often called “E-stonia”.
The e-democracy feature of voting online in the elections is however the most revolutionary aspect of the Estonian internet success. The first local elections that included e-voting parallel to traditional voting already took place in 2005 with electronic ID cards. There is a WiFi-net that covers nearly all of the country, an essential condition in order to be able to perform elections online.
“We realised that if the government was going to use the internet, the internet had to be available to everybody,” Linnar Viik of the Estonian IT College told the Guardian. “So we built a huge network of public internet access points for people who couldn’t afford them at home.”
The problem today in Europe is that many governments only focus on e-government, providing government services online, basically treating citizens as customers of a service. E-democracy, that involves a two-way communication between citizens and the state, is much less of a priority for governments. The problem among the ones who do see the internet as the future for democracy is that they naively consider it a democratic shortcut. This can be seen in Italy, where Beppe Grillo and his 5-Star Movement give the internet an almost magical democratic power, in a country where 20 million lack an Internet connection.
What could the rest of Europe learn from Estonia?
The Baltic country demonstrates that you shouldn’t stop at e-government solutions that provide more efficient services to citizens online but you need to create interactive forms of communication, such as e-democracy. Voting online might be the future of representative democracy in Europe but, as Estonia shows us, first you need to expand internet to all citizens. Not providing all citizens with internet access, or access to computers and other devices, in an era of e-democracy, is like depriving them from the right to vote.
On a side note: Estonia’s internet success doesn’t stop the country’s President from having a terrible social media strategy. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves insulted Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman on Twitter several times, after the New York Times columnist had posted a simple economic chart, but that’s a whole different story.