Estonia on cutting edge of digital transparency

The Yomiuri Shimbun

As some governments seek to use personal data from online spaces to exert political control, the small Baltic nation of Estonia has attracted attention for its efforts to balance digitization and democracy.

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“The best part is being able to save time,” said Eva Liias, a 36-year-old who works in the interpretation and tourism industries in the Estonian capital Tallinn. She was able to set up her company in 25 minutes using an online application.

The process was simple. First she inserted her electronic ID into a card reader on her computer. After entering her four-digit PIN, she gained access to the government website.

With a population of about 1.3 million, Estonia is at the forefront of the world in transitioning to a digital state. Except for marriages and divorces, 99% of administrative procedures can be done online. Even tax returns take about five minutes.

Schools share grades and other data with students and their guardians over the internet to help them learn. The government wants to collect genetic information from the populace to provide personalized medical care.

Estonia’s digitization efforts have the public’s support because it is clear who owns the data. Former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, 67, promoted the digital transformation of the country. He stressed the importance of giving citizens ownership over their data.

Government ministries and companies obtain personal information via an underlying system called X-Road. People can see how their data is used on a dedicated website. There is very little worry of data being siphoned off.

Liias said she paid her taxes on March 26. She said the dedicated website puts her at ease because she can immediately learn who viewed her data. When she showed her screen, it said that someone at the tax office had confirmed her address on March 29.

The public participates in the system because their data is not centrally managed by a single government department, but is stored by each entity individually, which gives people a sense of security. X-Road only allows ministries and companies to access the data they need, and thus there is low risk of abuse.

“A democratic country is capable of ensuring transparency in the use of electronic data. This is a big difference from authoritarian states,” Ilves said.

In fact, Estonia has a high level of democracy. In its latest report, the U.S. nonprofit Freedom House gave the country a score of 94 out of 100, higher than Britain and France.

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia has been committed to national development through digital means. It nurtures startups that help grow the economy.

National positions and systems are not enough to maintain a vibrant and democratic country. Public awareness is also essential.

Estonia’s electronic voting system has not led to sufficient political participation among its citizens. In four parliamentary elections held online since 2007, turnout has been roughly flat at around 63%.

“Digitization has limited effects on democracy,” said Martin Mordel, a political science researcher at the University of Tartu.

Digitization will not necessarily lead to dystopian surveillance states. But neither will it create a utopia. There are still questions to be answered regarding the public’s interest in democracy and how to use digital tools to improve democracy.