According to the 2021 Freedom on the Net report, compiled by Freedom House, a US-based think tank, Estonia ranks second in the world in internet freedom after Iceland; despite Estonia’s high ranking, the report highlights aspects that warrant special attention.
For the third year in a row, Iceland was ranked as the best environment for internet freedom, garnering 96 points out of 100. With only two points behind the winner, Estonia ranks second among the 70 countries assessed in the report.
“Estonia, known the world over as one of the most advanced digital societies, enjoys good connectivity and high rates of access, few state-imposed restrictions on online content, and robust safeguards for human rights online,” Estonian digital governance expert Hille Hinsberg, who served as one of the national rapporteurs for the report, said in a statement.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the online environment supported people’s day-to-day activities and operations.
“Estonia’s e-government and digital public services were not affected by the pandemic and people managed well thanks to digital public services and a secure digital identity,” Hinsberg said.
Aspects that warrant special attention
The pandemic underscored humanity’s dependence on digital technology, however, freedom on the net is waning. Globally, internet freedom has been declining for the past 11 years. For example, the use of tracking tools and manipulation of the general public with disinformation is on the rise.
While Estonia is still ranked among the top, the report highlights several aspects that should pique the attention of anyone who is responsible for safeguarding those rights.
For example, the Estonian parliament is currently reviewing amendments to the Electronic Communications Act for the purposes of preventing cyberattacks and mitigating the risks of political manipulation by technology owners, including large foreign companies. The proposed solution would have the telecommunications companies disclose the equipment and software used, whereas they argue, in turn, that such monitoring would distort free competition.
In addition, the obligation to retain communications data and the procedures for using that data are also in the process of being clarified. The Estonian Supreme Court has ruled that the use of communications data in criminal proceedings is prohibited until relevant national legislation on data use and storage has been harmonised with relevant EU law.
The newly adopted Act for the Establishment of Automatic Biometric Identification System Database provides the legal basis for the creation of a database that would allow the aggregation of biometric data currently dispersed across different databases. The objective is to make it easier for the government to process these data, for example, to combat crime more effectively.
Internet freedom not under threat
Although the act has been adopted, the Estonian Chancellor of Justice has set up a working group to analyse risks arising from the collection of personal data for one purpose and their use for another. The working group is tasked with clarifying the procedures for which biometric data will be used and whether individual rights are sufficiently safeguarded during such processing.
According to Hinsberg, internet freedom is currently not under threat in Estonia, but nevertheless, we must keep a keen eye on relevant developments.
“Each individual can do their part to maintain the trustworthiness of online content. The more sensitive and complicated is the topic, such as individual versus collective decisions in health care, the more important it is to use caution when distributing information,” she noted.
The Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House covers the period from June 2020 to May 2021. It’s a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 70 countries around the globe. It tracks improvements and declines in internet freedom conditions each year. The countries included in the study have been selected to represent diverse geographical regions and regime types.
Cover: A freedom on the net 2021 map.