E-stonia - A startup country

In the very north-east of Europe, on the border of Russia, lies the small country of Estonia. Per capita, Estonia has the most start-ups; internet access is considered a human right and all Estonians have free wifi.

 Whatever is new in the field of digital society has been tried out and used here first. The first e-residents have given their fingerprints for a virtual residence permit. The eyes of cosmopolitans, entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley venture capitalists are on it.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, independent Estonia had a very young government, right out of the cradle. The planned economy was swiftly reformed and Estonia was the first European country to introduce a flat tax. Import rates were scrapped. The country decided to become the first e-society in the world: government services, education and health care are all online; government spending is transparent and everyone owns their own data. It isn’t strange that this should be the country of disruptive technology companies such as Kazaa, Skype and Transferwise, that, with their peer-to-peer structures, have skilfully sailed clear of the power of the telecom and banking sectors.

However, this digital development makes the country vulnerable to cyber attacks. In 2007, the first cyber war was fought in Estonia; most studies say it was started by hackers from Russia. Servers of banks, newspapers and ministries were shut down by so-called DDos attacks. Since then the country has been a forerunner in cyber security. NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence has been set up in the capital city of Tallinn and Backlight is allowed to take a look inside. At a hackathon we meet young cyber security specialists who volunteer for the Estonian army.

In London we meet the very first Estonian e-resident, journalist Edward Lucas. From his home in London he can use his Estonian ID card to send encrypted e-mails. We also meet an Iranian-American Skype worker who signs all his contracts with a digital signature which will soon be acknowledged in the entire EU. We dive into the successful start-up scene where young Estonian entrepreneurs ponder ideas for the next Skype. In an interview, Estonian president Ilves encourages Europe to keep on running and not hide from the rest of the world; technology develops fast and in a digital world it doesn’t matter if your country is at a short tank distance from Russia because cyberspace doesn’t concern itself with geographical borders.

President Ilves doesn’t see why only one sovereign state should be able to validate a citizen’s identity. By now, the 1.3 million citizens of the small Baltic state not only have digital identities but they also self-assuredly take up the competition of other countries for interesting new virtual inhabitants. Wisdom is better than strength, so Estonia is striving for 10 million virtual citizens from all over the world. Then, through digitalisation, Estonia has become a much larger country.

Featuring: Edward Lucas (journalist, UK), Hamid Tahsildoost (Skype), Toomas Henrik Ilves (president, Estonia), Kristo Käärmann (Transferwise), Slim Sikkut (ICT councillor, Estonia) and captain Uko Valtenberg (chief cyber range, Estonian Defence Forces).

This English version of the episode can only be watched outside The Netherlands due to regulations from the Dutch Public Broadcasting Organization. The Dutch version can be watched on this website.