My colleagues at the Berkman Center are generally a pretty optimistic bunch. For the most part, we tend to believe the Internet is a very, very good thing, that it’s generally making the world a better place and that we should fight tooth and nail to protect it.
Our colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute may well believe all this, but they’re also hard-nosed academics who damned well want proof that the Internet is changing things before they’ll say so. It’s useful to hang out with them because they do an excellent job of challenging things we often take for granted.
Our second “case study” for the day did a nice job of giving both the cyberoptimists and cyberskeptics something to cheer about. Silver Meikar is a technology entrepreneur, a blogger and a former member of the Estonian parliament. He’s an expert of the phenomenon of “E-stonia”, the emergence of this formerly Soviet Baltic state as a technology powerhouse, producing both Skype and Kazaa.
He’s a skeptic, too, with numbers to back up his questions about whether Estonia’s really ready for e-government.
Net penetration in Estonia is amazingly high. 52% of the population reports using the Internet regularly. 35% have computers at home, and every government bureacrat, no matter their rank, has a computer on their desk and an email address. Silver believes this is a result of a strong educational system, lots of influence from Germany, Finland and Sweden, and a commitment to overhaul the state bureacracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In some senses, Estonians are huge users of online services. Over 50% bank online. And with an online tax system that lets people pay an annual bill online in seconds (it has your salary, your investment income, etc. prefilled for you, online…), the vast majority of Estonians file their taxes online.
But while lots of other aspects of Estonian life have gone online, they’re rarely used. Over 900,000 of Estonia’s 1.4m people have a computer-linked ID card. This card, along with a unique password, serves as a legal signature, and can be used for secure Internet voting. Despite the number of cards issued, Silver tells us that only 16,000 have ever been used for any transactions. In a recent election, Silver says he voted from the train, using a card reader attached to his wifi-enabled laptop. But he was only one of 8,000 Estonians to vote this way.
Other e-government systems are amazingly sophisticated, though not always well used. XRoad is a system to allows government agencies to access information about you… but reveals what bureacrat accessed your information and why, allowing you to question why the government accessed certain records. It’s not clear whether anyone other than the hardcore privacy advocates use the service, but it’s interesting to know it exists. A system called TOM is widely celebrated in e-government circles – it allows citizens to offer suggestions directly to the government. But only 6,000 people have registered to use it and only 22 replies have been posted by government officials to the ideas posted.
Silver believes that Estonian will use online services, but only ones that are genuinely useful and helpful to them. Paying taxes online, in 40 seconds? Useful. Checking access to your personal data? Perhaps not so useful.
There’s also something generational going on here. Silver is a young guy – 27 years old. (He was elected to parliament when he was 25, making him Estonia’s youngest parliamentarian.) There’s reason to believe that the folks using their ID cards to cast an e-vote have some demographics in common. Silver tells us that the e-voters overwhelmingly voted against the mainstream Estonian Central Party. Is it possible that Estonian e-government will catch on as a new generation of “digital natives” become voters?
(They’re becoming pretty succesful dissidents. Search for the Estonian equivalent of the word “depressing” on Google and you’ll get a link to the Central Party site. Kinda like what happens when you search for “Arabian Gulf“. Estonian bloggers evidently decided it would be a useful protest against a party that Silver says “stopped learning at the fax machine”.)
Perhaps. But Silver makes it clear that it takes more than technology to get elected. He references a candidate for parliament who ran primarily on his blog and got a total of 9 votes. Three young men who produced their own TV ad only got 95. The lesson? Media – including new media – alone doesn’t work, even in E-stonian elections.
That said, it worked for Silver. A student activist and technology entrepreneur, a friend invited him to hear some young politicians speak at his university. Their speeches were so dull and vapid that Silver decided he needed to run himself. So he stayed up all night writing up a strategy and started running the next day. His campaign was organized primarily online, and he maintained detailed databases and mailing lists of people he’d contacted. He promised his constituents that he’d be accessible by email and phone and would directly convey their concerns to the parliament. He came in 11th in an election to select 10 representatives… but came into power when one of the representatives took a Ministry post. And he says that there are several laws on the Estonian books that came directly from constituent contact with him via email.
Will Estonia become E-Stonia? It probably has a lot to do with whether there’s just one Silver Meikar, or thousands waiting in the wings.