Internet mad e-stonia

Article published on Sept. 13, 2007
Article published on Sept. 13, 2007
A toy airport, a medieval city centre with little wood houses and a maritime city which is completely internet savvy

I was already aware that things in Tallinn were a little 'different' - Giovanni, a 26-year-old Italian who lives here, had already briefed me. The neighbourhood smells of the sea and full of the sounds of seagulls - the holiday spirit is still in the air. Switching on my laptop, a variety of unsecured wireless connections are at my disposal. In the city at least 359 points of unadulterated internet access are available.

Estonian miracle

Free from the shackles of the Soviet Union, Estonia's dilemma was how to survive on the international scene without being a huge country, having raw materials or a developed industry. Luckily, Marti Laar came to the rescue in 1992 when he was elected prime minister of this small Baltic republic, with its one million inhabitants. At the scandalous age of 32, he became architect of the Estonian miracle. Economic liberalisation, zero tolerance with corruption, introducing direct taxes. And from morning till evening, all correspondence between the public administration and the Estonians went 'electronic' – no-one excluded, i.e. state organs and administrations, parliament, who had to adapt themselves to working via electronic communication.

But everyone is bearing the fruits of this decision, with an unemployment rate currently standing at 3% in Tallinn. Paying taxes over the internet is also a benefit, with the taxpayer's account and transfer easily found and made online.

Omnipresent network

Estonia was already a member of the European avant-garde in all matters technology. 'I found a newspaper from 1989 in the old factory which is now a culture centre,' says Irishman Ray Crowley, 30, who works for Skype in Tallinn. 'The colour quality astounded me – even in Great Britain at this time there weren't any publications with such a high level of print. I even found a long article about computer viruses.' At a time when Estonia wasn't even independent yet, the fear of computer threats obviously existed.

Today, internet is omnipresent in Tallin. Laptop screens are being opened up everywhere in cafes. People don't hand out their telephone numbers, but Skype contact details. When I try to get an interview with the ministry, I am told to send an email. I receive a reply in my inbox within minutes. 'I've hired a conference room for the debate,' Giovanni elaborates, when I tell him about the best experience I've ever had with an administration. 'When I went to pay at the end of the debate, I was told here we pay by bank transfer or credit card. Cash, it seems, has gone out of fashion,' he concludes, with half a smile. You can even buy parking tickets via your mobile phone.

School, doctors, elections – all over the world wide web

Thanks to automised, personalised chip cards, everyday problems are more and more easier to solve. A recent innovation which simplifies everyday life for those with chronic illnesses. Instead of heading to a doctor, the patient receives a download on their card – a prescription sent by the doctor. When the patient then heads to a pharmacy, all they need to do is pop their card in the machine to get their medicine.

Estonia are obviously leaders in their own niche Europe. For example, they're the only EU members who vote online. 'Being able to vote online really makes the system more democratic,' says Priit Vinkel, 24, head of the Estonian electoral department. Currently, there are fourteen different ways of voting. 'Many Estonians work abroad or in the seas, and can't come home. These kind of people, plus the ill and disabled, can take advantage of the internet option – it only takes a minute, after all.' Vinkel is convinced that the system is secure. 'Every country has information on their citizens,' he says, sipping his coffee. 'We don't have any other choice. We have to trust the nerds,' he jokes.

University courses online

Young people also take advantage of the digital world they live in. As the market needs fresh young talent constantly, they have to be very flexible, meaning they often study and work. Luckily for them, the University of Tallinn helps them out by putting lectures online, selling DVDs with recorded classes (which can be loaned too), and so on. Lectures, notes, even entire book chapters can be found on the university servers. Does anyone even bother to go to class? People joke that students are lazy, but the answer is yes, they do. 'Of course people still value traditional university practice and enjoy having access to their lecturers,' says Moonika Olju, European studies co-ordinator. 'From time to time – especially during our boreal winters, when the temperatures drop to zero and it's already dark by 2pm, maybe only three to four students come to class. It was irritating for professors at first. Since then though, they've got used to the situation and can give happily give a lecture to one person as to entire audiences.'

Pirates of the internet

The increasing 'informationalised' city is considered a huge advantage by the majority of its population. But there's some criticism that the system excludes people socially. Mariann, 21, a waitress in a pub in the old town, thinks that 'it's not fair on those who don't use the computer all day long, or have access to it. What about those who aren't interested in learning how to use new technology, and are automatically penalised as second-rate citizens?'

However, there were attacks on the Estonian servers during the Bronze statue (commemorating fallen Soviet soldiers during independence) uproar, when it was controversially moved from the city's centre to a cemetery further out. A new 'emergency centre' was created – the 'Cyber Crime Centre' – but the question remains; can another, mroe general web attack put the country in danger?

A worker at Hansapank (Estonia's national bank), who prefers to remain anonymous, is sceptical. 'The new centre hasn't resolved the issue. It just managed to block the Estonian server from foreign IP addresses, eliminating the hacker problem. But it also threw a spanner in the works for Estonians abroad trying to access their bank accounts. Both the attacks and the recovery caused serious damage. In the future, we have to think these kind of situations through better.'

In-text photos: Skype (cfarivar/ Flickr), Moonika Olju (NS)