Estonia second in the world by internet freedom

Estonia continues to be one of the most wired countries in the world, with increasing internet access and online participation among citizens, the latest Freedom House report “Freedom on the Net 2014” said. Estonia secured the second position in the country rankings.

“Estonia ranks among the most wired and technologically advanced countries in the world. With a high internet penetration rate, widespread e-commerce, and e-government services embedded into the daily lives of individuals and organisations, Estonia has become a model for free internet access as a development engine for society. When the country regained independence in 1991 after nearly 50 years of Soviet rule, its infrastructure was in a disastrous condition. The country’s new leadership, however, perceived the expansion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as a key to sustained economic growth and invested heavily in their development,” Freedom House said in the report.

“The first internet connections in the country were introduced in 1992 at academic facilities in Tallinn and Tartu. The national telecommunication monopoly was subsequently privatised with the inclusion of Finnish and Swedish telecommunication companies, and a fiber-optic backbone was built with modern fixed and mobile communications services. The government further worked with private and academic entities to initiate a program in 1996 called Tiger Leap, which aimed to establish computers and internet connections in all Estonian schools by 2000. This program helped to build a general level of technological competence and awareness of ICTs among Estonians,” the report added.

Few obstacles to internet access

Freedom House said there were few obstacles to internet access in Estonia. “The first public Wi-Fi area was launched in 2001, and since then the country has developed a system of mobile data networks that enable widespread wireless broadband access. In 2011, the country had over 2,440 free, certified Wi-Fi areas meant for public use, including at cafes, hotels, hospitals, schools, and gas stations, and the government has continued to invest in public Wi-Fi,” it said.

Describing the widespread use of internet for government services in Estonia, Freedom House said that during the 2014 European Parliament elections, 103,151 votes were cast over the internet, representing over 31 percent of all votes from Estonia. “In 2013, 95 percent of citizens filed their taxes online, making the web services offered by the tax department the most popular public e-service. Over 63 percent of internet users regularly use e-government services, and 77 percent of these users have indicated their satisfaction with such services.”

The report said that with a high level of computer literacy and connectivity already established, the focus in Estonia has shifted from basic concerns such as access, quality and cost of internet services to discussions about security, anonymity, the protection of private information and citizens’ rights on the internet. “Children’s safety on the internet is a high priority, and the special program “Targalt Internetis” (Wiser Internet) is dedicated to country-wide training and awareness-building activities on internet safety issues for parents and children.”

Restrictions on content among the lightest in the world

According to Freedom House, restrictions on internet content and communications in Estonia are among the lightest in the world.

“YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and many other international video-sharing and social-networking sites are widely available and popular. Moreover, 32 percent of Estonians use the internet for uploading and sharing original content such as photographs, music, and text – the highest level of shared public communication in Europe. Nevertheless, due in part to Estonia’s strong privacy laws, there are some instances of content removal. Most of these cases involve civil court orders to remove inappropriate or off-topic reader comments from online news sites. Comments are similarly removed from online discussion forums and other sites. Generally, users are informed about a given website’s privacy policy and rules for commenting, which they are expected to follow,” the report said.

“There are over 70,000 active Estonian-language blogs on the internet, including an increasing number of group, project, and corporate blogs. The vibrancy and activities of the blogosphere are frequently covered by traditional media, particularly when blog discussions center on civic issues. The fact that so many Estonians are both computer literate and connected to the internet has created unique opportunities for the Estonian government,” it added.

As for violations of user rights, Freedom House said that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were protected by Estonia’s constitution and by the country’s obligations as a member state of the European Union, but the country was currently in the process of amending the penal code to comply with the European Council decision on “combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law” in order to establish a framework on hate speech criminalisation in the country.

“Anonymity is unrestricted, and there have been extensive public discussions on anonymity and the respectful use of the internet. Internet access at public access points can be obtained without prior registration. In July 2012, the Ministry of Justice initiated proceedings to amend sections 151 and 152 of the penal code, which would lead to a new legal norm regarding hate speech-related legislation in Estonia. This process is still ongoing and has become the topic of significant public debate within the country,” it said.

“There have been no physical attacks against bloggers or online journalists in Estonia, though online discussions are sometimes inflammatory. Following instances of online bullying, sexual harassment, and the misuse of social media in 2009-2010, discussions and public awareness campaigns were launched to involved parents in increasing the protection of children on the internet,” Freedom House said in its report.

Iceland topped the internet freedom list second year in a row. Estonia’s second position was followed by Canada in third, Australia in fourth, and Germany in the fifth position.

Freedom House is a US-based non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights. Freedom House was founded in October 1941 and it describes itself as a “clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world”.

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About the author: Silver Tambur

Silver Tambur is the cofounder and Editor-in-Chief of Estonian World. He has previously studied journalism at the University of Tartu, and Politics & Society at the Birkbeck College, University of London. Silver has been the editor at the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s news service in English, as well as contributing for the Business Sense magazine in the UK, Deutsche Welle and Radio New Zealand. You can also follow him on Twitter. You can write to Silver at silver@estonianworld.com.