How the Tech-Savvy Estonian President Led His Country to the Cutting Edge of Internet Politics
BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, September 24 2013
On Monday, September 23, the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, gave the key note address at the United Nations panel discussion entitled “A Secure and Free Internet.” That day he was also hailed in a thorough profile on Buzzfeed as “The President of Twitter.”
Today Ilves spoke about Internet freedom and cybersecurity at Columbia University, as part of their World Leaders Forum, with the authority and expertise of a university professor, complete with a patterned bow tie. His talk this afternoon was basically an introductory lecture on modern warfare and the philosophy of informational technologies, punctuated by references to the books taught in Columbia College's common core curriculum.
Ilves compared the Internet revolution to “a sped up version of industrialization.” After going on a technological tangent, he half-heartedly apologized, but pointed out that, “we will all have to know a little bit of technology in order to survive in the future.”
How did he become such a vocal influence and thought leader, online and off, in Internet politics and cybersecurity? Ilves himself traces it back to 2007, when Estonia became the first target—or at least the first target to go public with the information—of cyberattacks motivated by politics.
In an op-ed for the New York Times earlier this year, Ilves wrote that the 2007 attacks were in fact a “blessing—Estonia took cybersecurity seriously earlier than most.”
One of the most important things the government might have done was be open about the attacks. Lauri Almann, the permanent undersecretary of Estonia's Ministry of Defence in 2007, has said that things could have turned out very differently:
Going public with the attacks turned out to be the right thing for Estonia in a number of ways. Firstly, it saved the government from having to come up with mock explanations about what was going on and allowed it to be more efficient in mitigating the attacks. Secondly, it became the foundation of Estonia’s e-service boom by creating the basis of trust that is necessary between the state and its citizens. Thirdly, while it seemed to be a severe blow to the country’s reputation as an e-tiger, it actually launched a new episode in Estonia’s success story by positioning the country as a thought leader in cyber security.
Estonia has worked hard to move aspects of civic life onto the Internet. Ilves boasted in his op-ed this year that a quarter of the electorate votes online, and 95 percent of tax returns are submitted online. Citizens also have easy access to their medical and dental records online.
Ilves is also one of the rare politicians to embrace Twitter as a place to express himself and continue conversations as opposed to filling his feed with platitudes and self-promotional material (although there is some of that, too, as one would expect). The feud Ilves started in response to a Paul Krugman article in the New York Times became so infamous that someone wrote and performed an opera about it.
Estonia is also experimenting with more direct democracy, facilitated by the Internet. In April I wrote about Rahvakogu, an online platform through which citizens submitted proposals and comments for the country's lawmakers. Eventually, 16 proposals were submitted to Parliament for consideration.
Ilves ended his lecture at Columbia University by saying that “it all goes back to Locke” and suggesting a social contract between people and governments agreeing to certain terms for online privacy and security.
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