By Nick Robinson
“Hello from Tallinn!
The big day has finally arrived…”
On May 13th, a rather important email dropped into my inbox. It marked a particularly exciting moment: anyone from around the world is now able to sign up and apply to become an Estonian e-Resident – and all from the comfort of their own home, desk and computer.
Once an applicant is vetted and approved, e-Residency grants its new digital citizen access to a wide range of Estonian digital services – whilst becoming the first form of “supranational digital identity” ever offered around the world. For the e-Resident, the ability to set up an Estonian business or bank account in under an hour, or conduct swift and sustainable business operations across borders via digital signatures, are possible for a mere €50. Digital signatures, which are now just as binding as handwritten ones, offer a future whereby business transactions take minutes – rather than months – to authenticate and travel across global borders. As for the Indian entrepreneur or Brazilian trader – a new world is open as they are able to create and trade their company from within Estonia (and within the EU), whilst declaring Estonian taxes online, leaving them a distinctive advantage over their counterparts at home.
With over 13,000 people registering an interest and applying within the first few months, excitement appears to be coupled with expectation. The e-Residency team has already boldly predicted that 10 million non-Estonian e-Residents will be signed up by 2025 – 10 times the number of actual citizens currently residing in Estonia (1.3 million approximately).
There is a need to be clear here: e-Residency doesn’t offer citizenship, legal residency or voting rights. Aimed at being predominantly business orientated, the program looks to free individuals from “corporate bureaucracy” and “unleash the world’s entrepreneurial potential.” In addition to the aspects mentioned above, e-Residency will also offer a system that will allow e-Residents to send encrypted emails between one another, an inviting alternative to the current US/UK “ass-backwards” approach to cyber security.
For Estonians however, this recent plunge into the technological ‘unknown’ isn’t new. In fact, for the nation now dubbed ‘e-Estonia’, e-residency falls into a long line of e-solutions that Estonians have embraced in the wake of restoring independence in 1991. Built through the foundational X-Road, understood as the backbone for e-Estonia, Estonians can now access and be a part of a wide range of services – such as e-business, e-school and e-voting – all leading to unprecedented levels of government transparency and accessibility, and safer exchanges of private, government and corporate data.
The rise of e-Estonia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been nothing short of remarkable. The developing foundations set by the creation of project Tiigrihüpe (“Tiger Leap”) have become the catalyst in terms of large-scale technological and network advancements – especially within government and education. For a nation that struggled to supply basic telecommunications to half its population two decades ago, Estonia now appears to be leading the way in everyday technological solutions, with the Internet intertwined as part of their national identity and ethos.
But for e-Residency, Estonia is offering far more than the already super fast broadband speeds, e-prescriptions and paperless government buildings for its own relatively small population – the opportunity of access to a digital society now lies with anyone around the world, and applying could not be easier. When British journalist Edward Lucas was inaugurated as the world’s first e-Resident at a momentous ceremony in Tallinn on 1st December 2014, he – and all other applicants – had been required to make the trip to an Estonian border guard office in person and subsequently wait two weeks (for background checks and admin) before returning to pick up their new e-Residency cards – if successful. Now just a single face-to-face meeting is required at your nearest Estonian embassy to collect your card, before being entitled to the wide range of services that e-Residency can now provide.
e-Residency may also become a tool for future diplomacy as e-Residents act as “ambassadors” and, according to Estonian government advisor Siim Sikkut, could pursue “public and economic diplomacy objectives” for e-Estonia.
“Throw your passwords in the
bin – the future lies in electronic
identification and digital
For too long, digital identities have been associated with fraud, cyber crime and risk. Whilst, in its nature, e-Residency does present certain risks, the e-Residency team are confident that their program addresses them by making “existing risks more visible and manageable, as digital footprints are easily traceable.” Growing up in a society that has remained cautious in regards to digital identity and a digital society on the whole, I am interested in the potential scope and promise e-Residency harbingers. As e-Residency Team Leader Kaspar Korjus suggests in this short video (see below), knowing exactly who you are communicating with online is a positive step which could in theory improve personal security and privacy in the long term. It is with my enormous gratitude that I have been offered personal insight into the work of the e-Residency team during the program’s journey – and I am eager to learn more about the program first-hand.
In terms of the border – and as Klaus Dodds explains in the latest Geocast – it is now not uncommon for states and governments to invest vast sums of money “trying to reshape and reengineer the physical and geographical environment”. A clear example of this; Estonia appears to be reshaping its borders digitally. Whilst they claim to be moving towards the idea of a ‘country without borders’, my research this summer will look closely at this assertion – and how the program may, in fact, reconstitute the border and add to current debates surrounding inclusion/exclusion within EU geopolitics especially.
As Edward Lucas stood proudly with his e-Residency card back in December, I was left reflecting on the numerous problems and complexities this program fashions within debates surrounding geopolitics and security – even the banal act of pinning the Estonian flag to his lapel fuelled geopolitical significance for me.
Asked in a recent interview about his nationality, Lucas is a self-proclaimed “proud and loyal British subject”, yet added that, “in my life online, where I am not constrained by national boundaries, I will be identifying myself with an Estonian-issued digital ID.”
But this doesn’t speak for everybody. In the very near future – and as a hypothetical scenario – one individual may become a fully-fledged Estonian e-Resident; purchase Maltese citizenship without having to add any additional investment to the island’s economy; and do all of this whilst still residing in their own native country. The global implications of such a scenario are somewhat unknown, but it is arguable that the concepts of residency, the nation-state and border will become more and more troublesome as a result.
Estonia can be regarded as a fascinating example in this regard – but this may all change as they begin to service a wider demographic in the near future. With Estonians appearing to be very much in tune with the vast array of digital services their government provides, the immediate challenge for the e-Residency team will be proving to a global audience how the future of conducting business and trade digitally, and across borders, will be enhanced tremendously by the e-Resident. However, many questions do still remain over the overall merits of e-Residency (argued as merely a marketing ploy by some), and a greater effort is needed to fully understand the future impact of millions of ‘virtual’ residents functioning within Estonian society and outside of its own borders.
Estonian linguist Jakob Hurt once proclaimed, “If we can’t be a great nation in population, we can be a great nation in spirit!”. But now it appears that e-Estonia intends to (digitally) turn this very notion on its head.
Nick Robinson is a current MSc Geopolitics and Security student at Royal Holloway, and former Human Geography and International Politics graduate at Aberystwyth University. He is interested in a broad number of topics across the program, but has a focussed interested in technology (and its role within society), e-Estonia and media.