The European country where Skype was born made a conscious decision to embrace the web after shaking off Soviet shackles.
... In a tiny (population: 1.4 million) and newly independent country like Estonia, politicians realised computers could help quickly compensate for both a minuscule workforce and a chronic lack of physical infrastructure.
Seventeen years on, the internet has done more than just help. It is now tightly entwined with Estonia's identity. "For other countries, the internet is just another service, like tap water, or clean streets," said Linnar Viik, a lecturer at the Estonian IT College, a government adviser and a man almost synonymous in Estonia with the rise of the web.
"But for young Estonians, the internet is a manifestation of something more than a service – it's a symbol of democracy and freedom."
To see why, you just have to go outside. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, and has been for a decade.
Viik says you could walk 100 miles – from the pastel-coloured turrets here in medieval Tallinn to the university spires of Tartu – and never lose internet connection.
"We realised that if the government was going to use the internet, the internet had to be available to everybody," Viik said. "So we built a huge network of public internet access points for people who couldn't afford them at home."
The country took a similar approach to education. By 1997, thanks to a campaign led in part by Ilves, a staggering 97% of Estonian schools already had internet. Now 42 Estonian services are now managed mainly through the internet. Last year, 94% of tax returns were made online, usually within five minutes. You can vote on your laptop (at the last election, Ilves did it from Macedonia) and sign legal documents on a smartphone. Cabinet meetings have been paperless since 2000.
Doctors only issue prescriptions electronically, while in the main cities you can pay by text for bus tickets, parking, and – in some cases – a pint of beer. Not bad for country where, two decades ago, half the population had no phone line. ...
... To a British audience, the ID card will have a whiff of Big Brother. But many Estonians argue the opposite: that it allows them to keep tabs on the state, rather than the other way round.
"You'd think, given our history, we'd have a problem with it," said Ilves, in an oblique reference to the days when the KGB had an office down a cobbled street in central Tallinn.
"But I feel much more secure with a digital ID. If anyone goes into my files, they're flagged. Whereas if my files – which would exist anyway – were made of paper, no one would know who was looking at them."
Every Estonian can see who has visited their data, and they can challenge any suspicious behaviour. In one famous case, a policewoman was caught accessing information about her boyfriend. ...
The story mentions Mart Laar, the first Estonian Prime Minister after Russian occupation. He was 32 at the time. I had the privilege of having dinner with him a few years ago at an Acton Institute event. What an amazing story. Then I had an opportunity to see a screening of the documentary The Singing Revolution with the director present. If you have never seen the documentary you need to get it on your list. One of the most amazing stories of hope and reconciliation in the face incredible threats. I hope to visit Estonia someday. Here is a trailer for the documentary.