Can the Estonia-model guide us in our own digital revolution?
Just imagine your life, offline.
The other day I had felt an unusual numbness on the way back from my daily brisk-walk routine. My arms signalled something was wrong. I had a tightening sensation accompanied by a sinking feeling.
We humans continue to live in startling times; in a turbulent era that will be stored in human history. Our experiences shall be referred and shared by future generations. Unable to understand what had gripped me, I drew my son Yasir’s attention who wasted no time to rush me to the hospital.
A digital bubble
Inside the eerie air conditioned silence of the premises, I received the attention and care from the people who are celebrated, and known as lifesavers -- the dedicated doctors and staff of the Memorial Hospital West.
To shut off my habitual online gaze on the iPhone screen, Yasir snatched away my device -- my loving link with people around the world who have treated me with consideration and respect.
I felt pain, not so much in my chest. What hurt me was being cut off from my own world of comfort that I had built up in the digital bubble. Something that had long been the source of my immense happiness.
Change has been and shall remain a permanent feature governing our lives and our planet at all times. What will post-pandemic nations across the planet look like? A few voices of reason during these disquieting times have argued that the coronavirus pandemic is a portal, a gateway into a different world where much of what we have come to take for granted about the nation/state may soon be radically altered.
If such a prediction is to prove prophetic, then the transformation of countries is likely to be shaped by the emergence of the digital republic, a place where the internet is all-encompassing, where everything that needs to happen for a society to function effectively, happens online.
Regardless of the enormous infiltration of the internet into so many of our daily lives over the last decade or so, the digital framework of apps and websites still needs supplementing by its counterparts in the physical realm in order for all of us to get on with life. The lack of integrated online services in key sectors like education, health care, and finance (to name a few) along with the presence of the digital divide means that the internet is far from being a self-sufficient instrument of modern existence, be it in the West or in the Global South.
No matter how much time we spend scrolling through Instagram or hosting a Zoom party, we still cannot afford to live online.
Obviously, due to the coronavirus, all of that may be set to change. A digital existence may no longer be limited to virtual socialization and a handful of transactions and registrations, for in the age of social distancing, the nation-state could become entirely digital, or at least kick-start a movement towards a more comprehensive digital setup.
The case of Estonia
And interestingly, in order for such a transition to take place, we do not have to create an abstract ideal of a digital utopia, for a near-perfect model already exists. Situated on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe is Estonia, which has, since gaining independence from the erstwhile USSR in 1991, become the world’s first (and till date only) digital republic.
Although recording less than a hundred deaths from the coronavirus, Estonia had initiated to ease down its lockdown measures in May, opening alongside neighbouring Lithuania and Latvia the first “travel bubble” within the European Union. While such changes have been welcomed by Estonians, they do not represent a full-fledged resumption of normality, because of the simple reason that normality was never disturbed significantly in Estonia in the first place, thanks to its remarkable digital synergy.
On March 13, the Estonian government announced a state of emergency on account of coronavirus. In a matter of hours, a “hackathon” was unleashed across the country as expert units embarked on a mission to tackle all pandemic related issues within a matter of 48 hours, all online. Such an initiative was feasible since 99% of all government services can already be availed digitally in Estonia, which was the first country to hold elections over the web in 2014.
In the last parliamentary polls conducted in March 2019, 44% of Estonians had cast their votes online. According to the government’s estimates, Estonia’s fully integrated digital system saves more than 800 hours of working time annually.
From doctor’s appointments to passport renewal, from grocery shopping to tax payments, each component of civil society has been digitized. This means that, technically speaking, Estonians need to step out of the comfort of their homes only in three cases -- to marry, divorce, to remarry, or purchase and sell real estate.
All the above systems work seamlessly courtesy of the unique electronic IDs allocated to each citizen and the presence of digital signatures for authentication, which have become legally binding since 2002.
The fundamental question at this stage is if all online activity is routed through a single ID, how does Estonia ensure cyber security and prevent the misuse of digital data? The solution lies in two plain yet powerful mechanisms.
Let’s acknowledge that the first is the “once only” principle that mandates that only one governmental department has access to one kind of data. For example, Estonian addresses are recorded only in the population register, which means that any other authority wanting to obtain these addresses must resort to the register. Decentralization of information provides a massive safeguard against hacking and tech-terrorism as it does not allow the perpetrators of cyber crime to unlock multiple conduits of data in one fell swoop.
Subsequently, the second aspect has involved something known as “digital by default,” wherein all information entered on paper is converted into a digital format to offer better protection. This facilitates the maintenance of digital logs through which one can find out who has accessed one’s digital profiles.
Such transparency goes a long way in addressing the imbalances of power that usually play out between the state and its people or between those at opposite ends of the social pyramid.
However, will other countries replicate Estonia’s digital infrastructure without hiccups? The simplistic answer is no -- it is unlikely for most nations that have a panoply of problems, ranging from socio-economic fault lines to administrative reluctance to a lack of public consensus regarding the digital domain, issues that did not significantly perturb a largely homogeneous Estonia.
Prima facie, the Estonian plan of digital immunity passports (likely to be underway soon) as a form of screening against the pandemic has already provoked widespread criticism in the United Kingdom, while contact tracing applications for the coronavirus like India’s Aarogya Setu have proved hackable and subject to grave privacy concerns.
The key to tackling such hurdles is not to abandon the digital possibilities altogether, but to cultivate trust through responsible policy-making, to make public officials and the common man E-literate, and to incorporate discussions on digital issues in every sphere of society, something Estonia has been able to do with aplomb.
However, it is vital to remember that even in Estonia, the digital makeover was not an overnight success. The ambitious digitization blueprint was drawn up originally in 1994, and it was not until five years later that the first fruits of that endeavour were realized. The move to the internet in Estonia was primarily motivated by a dearth of resources and a desire to curb spending, both of which are strong incentives at present for various national governments to usher in a digital revolution.
Straight forward, no uniform predictions can be made about the post-pandemic digital republic, but it is also certain that the internet will prove to be a game-changer in whatever new order emerges from the current chaos.
Journalist and author Naomi Klein has already highlighted the insidious possibilities underpinning such a digital order through her dissection of the no-touch technology that New York bodies and tech giants like Google are intending to create in the form of a “Screen New Deal” that Klein believes could bring every single service to the fingertips (quite literally) of those New Yorkers who can afford it, even as the suffering of the blue-collar precariat -- toiling away in ruthless environments like Amazon’s warehouses -- is made invisible.
And in another grim prognosis of a digital future, historian Yuval Noah Harari has forecasted how everything from our blood pressure to our intuitive responses to politicians can form a part of state surveillance through futuristic technology capable of getting under our skin in more ways than one.
In light of such concerns, it becomes incumbent on governments across the globe to ensure that the digital facilities that are introduced or enhanced in the wake of the novel circumstances are not only efficient and user-friendly, but also inclusive, with the data distributed among independent authorities instead of a singular administration.
Finally, replicating the Estonian model should not merely consist of adopting the right tools that have heralded the world’s first digital republic. It will also involve the right temperament that is required to guarantee that the digital portal of tomorrow will not exploit or disconnect -- those that have already been compromised, through decades of iniquitous life that had existed offline.
Just try and imagine this!
Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.