Tere, Eestimaa!

Cyrus Farivar | Estonia, Featured
11 Nov 2010

The first time I had even thought about Estonia was in late 2004, when I encountered this 2003 article in the Christian Science Monitor: “Estonia, where being wired is a human right.”

A little more than a decade ago, Estonia was a crumbling republic of the Soviet Union, where information was tightly controlled and telephones were rotary, rare, and unreliable. Just a few days before, in the Russian port of Kaliningrad, this reporter couldn’t find a functioning pay phone to make a local call.

But shortly after docking in Tallinn, Kuut, tools in hand, had set up a wireless, two-megabyte-per-second Internet node in the ship’s coffee lounge. “Not a problem,” he said, checking messages on his cellphone.

Literally all I knew about Estonia prior to reading this piece was that it had been an occupied and absorbed into the Soviet Union. I remembered one of my middle school history teachers telling us that, but from that point forward, I’d never encountered the place. However, as soon as I read that line about Internet access being a human right, I had a crush.

I mean, for someone as Internet-obsessed as me, could there really be a country that took the Internet seriously enough to enshrine it into its legal documents? I had to find out.

These days though, whenever I meet Estonians — the most recent one was just two weeks ago at an EU conference in Liège, Belgium, where I met Rene Tõnnison of the Institute of Baltic Studies — they’re a bit surprised to meet an American who says that he’s “in love with Estonia.” (The only other American that I know who might be more in love with Estonia than me is Justin Petrone, but I digress.)

So, why am I in love? It’s not just because of the history of Estonia’s technology — which, as you might have guessed, features prominently in my book.

Yes, Estonia is the land of e-voting, digital ID cards, Skype, and most recently, got attention for having sustained a large-scale politically-motivated cyberattack in 2007. But Estonia’s history is more mind-blowing than that.

Barack Obama once called America an “unlikely story,” but I say that Estonia is an even more unlikely story.

Firstly, this is a country of 1.3 million people. Put another way, that’s roughly Bonn’s population x4, or San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley put together. Secondly, it has a semi-obscure Finno-Ugric language and worst of all, throughout its history has been invaded and occupied by basically all of its neighboring countries, most notably Tsarist and Soviet Russia.

The country spent essentially half a century under constant threat of oppression, violence and forced exile. Even the current president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves himself was born to Estonians that had fled to Sweden, and he himself was raised in the United States.

And yet, Estonia was the country that released digital ID cards back in 2002, while Germany (supposedly one of Europe’s scientific and technological powerhouses) struggles to release its new digital ID cards in 2010.

Estonia released online voting in 2005, while America couldn’t even get simple electronic (not Internet-based) voting right in 2006, much less in 2010.

After the prowess that Estonia showed in 2007, is it any wonder that Tallinn is the host of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, and that the U.S. Secret Service has said that it will open up an office in Tallinn this year to focus on financial crime, cyber crime and Internet fraud?

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