Estonia has caught the attention of policy analysts around the globe: as a member of the EU and NATO, a global leader in Internet technology, and a thriving market economy, it stands out in the vanguard of the former Russian satellites. Estonia’s success offers lessons in why the experience of the transition states has diverged so widely.

The spread and use of information and communications technology (ICT) has played a crucial role in Estonia’s development. Today, nearly 80 percent of Estonians are connected to the Internet. For the past 10 years, WiFi has been available for free nationwide. Estonians pay their taxes and do their banking online and, increasingly in recent years, even vote online. Every Estonian over the age of 15 also has a key card with a chip which allows them to access a range of services – from riding on a bus, to accessing their medical records, and reviewing tax data online.

Much of this has happened under the leadership of Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who recently gave a keynote address at the Legatum Institute on Estonia’s experience in promoting ICT as a key driver of prosperity.

In his address, Ilves explained how Estonia went from a "a non-digital society with no hardware, no software and a completely different form of communication, to a world where we cannot imagine living without this technology".

Speech Highlights

  • In recent times, Estonia has been labelled  “Silicon Valley of Northern Europe”, going further than any other state in digitising all societal relations;
  • By 1998, all Estonian schools were online and computers provided for children; the success enjoyed by Estonian's today is considered a result of such early investments in ICT;
  • Nearly all Estonians bank online, 25% of its electoral votes are cast online, 97% of tax returns are managed online, and medical prescriptions are prepared online;
  • The Estonian government has built trust with its people by implementing secure measures to protect its citizens online, including a government guaranteed smart ID-card;
  • Estonia has been ranked No 1 on internet freedom by Freedom House for 3 years in a row, now No 2 after Iceland;
  • Privacy and data integrity are fundamental security issues but it is the government’s job to protect the security and the rights of its citizens – offline and online;
  • In order for other countries to adopt a technological system such as Estonia's, there must be trust, secure connections, smart architectural solutions to use all the opportunities that modern technology offers, and laws that are updated to meet the requirements of a digital age; that address the issues of privacy, security and trust, without reverting to isolation and protectionism.

In terms of citizen concerns over data intelligence, Ilves was keen to highlight the distinction between a fear of "Big Brother" style monitoring, as is often associated with organisations such as the NSA and GCHQ, versus what he calls the "Little Sister" approach, as is increasingly used by private sector companies as a form of targeted and mutually beneficial marketing.

Download Highlights of President Ilves' remarks [PDF]


About the Speaker
Toomas Hendrik Ilves has been the President of Estonia since 2006 and was re-elected for a second term in office in 2011. From 1993 to 1996 Ilves served in Washington as the Ambassador of the Republic of Estonia to the United States of America. From 1996 to 1998, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. After a brief period as Chairman of the North Atlantic Institute in 1998, he was again appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, serving until 2002. From 2002 to 2004, Ilves was a Member of the Estonian Parliament; in 2004 he was elected a Member of the European Parliament.

During his presidency Toomas Hendrik Ilves has been appointed to serve in several high positions in the field of ICT in the European Union. He served as Chairman of the EU Task Force on eHealth from 2011 to 2012, and since November 2012, at the invitation of the European Commission, he became Chairman of the European Cloud Partnership Steering Board. His interest in computers stems from an early age – he learned to program at the age of 13, and he has been promoting Estonia's IT-development since the country restored its independence.