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At the high-level meeting on digital issues within the framework of the Assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa

At the high-level meeting on digital issues within the framework of the Assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa © Vabariigi Presidendi Kantselei


Thank you for inviting me. I begun this speech in French, because multilingualism is very important for Estonians, since Estonia is a small country with only 1,3 million people.

I am telling you a story of a country, which 30 years ago was poor and living under the level of extreme poverty. This country had just regained its independence and we were told by all to follow their example. To do what they have been doing before. “Don’t worry, do just like we do and then you will catch up with us.” We, the young government of our country, realized that it cannot be true.  If you are doing exactly the same things that others have been doing before you, then you are never going to catch up. We realized that we must do things differently.

Here in this continent I see a smart start-up continent. I am relying on our own experience. No one considered us smart and start-up. We proved them wrong. I know you are smart and start-up. 30 years from now everybody will look with admiration at this start-up continent, which has developed quickly thanks to embracing the new technologies. I am sure this will come true.

Back to my own country. What did we have 30 years ago? We had nothing, no tax offices, no government offices; no bank offices .We had nothing. While our people wanted services like everyone everywhere and while we are a country, which is not densely populated.

Banks were already going online and offering digital services. First internet banking services in Europe came online in 1996-1997. Yes, they were tiny compared to what we have today, but they were there. We talked to our banks and said, what if … Well, we need to collect taxes and nobody wants to see the taxman.

We can do it this way that nobody does have to see the taxman; we can do an online tax board. Banks, please allow people access to our online tax board though your e-banking services.

The banks agreed, because this also meant that people more and more realized that banking services really are online. This was important for the private sector because as I said we are not a densely populated country and it is not profitable to have a service office in a small Estonian village not even in small towns. Therefore, we did this together with the private sector.

Couple of years later when we developed the paperless government model, replacing papers with computers we realized that we were on to something. People were coming to Estonia, for example journalists from Financial Times and Economist, asking what do you mean, the government is paperless? Using computers? What do you mean public service is online? We asked back--what is so special? The private sector has it. Frankly speaking, we thought that five years from there everybody would have that in the public services. However, this is not happening.

We continued our own path and we started facing questions that how can we be sure digital is safe? Digital is horrible, it is not safe?  We on the other hand could not understand why do you think paper is safer. By that point, for example we had developed many e-services. I moved from my country to another more developed country and I was asked to write on paper my home address, my mobile phone number, medical concerns of my children, their allergies and put this paper to the school bag for them to take to school. While in Estonia schools are online. Only the authorized persons can check all this information. It is much safer online. We did not understand in Estonia why everyone was thinking it is unsafe. It is efficient; it is cheap and much safer.

We developed our services offered to the citizens, starting from scratch, starting from the taxes, as I told you. Then to more positive services like social services applications. Finally, in 2003 we felt safe enough in our digital service provision to provide e-voting to our people. Estonians vote online. Again, there was the discussion—how is it safe? This from people, who are voting through envelope. I mean they but their ballot in an envelope, put it in the mailbox and this is safe? You do not know whether it arrived, whether it was counted. Online you vote and you get feedback— your vote was counted. It is much safer this way.  And it helps to keep our citizens with us even if they are not in the country. They can still participate in the political processes.

Suddenly we realized that our society has changed. We realized it this way that sometimes digital services do not run very smoothly. Sometimes the Internet is off, or you come under cyberattack and our people, they refuse to use paper. We realized we have really had a transformation because as soon as somebody suggests to our people, that maybe you could do this on paper, they were like, what do you mean—I have to get my prescription from my doctor on paper? This is not acceptable anymore in our society. The digital transformation is complete.

With this comes responsibility of making sure that we continue to develop and making sure that we continue to protect the information we have in our database. Because the question of security over data is a real one. People want to know that the government does not use the data the government has online against them. This is actually easy to guarantee. Much easier than if you are in the private sector and this is an unregulated area.  The government can simply adopt a law, which says, I will not use you data without your permission and knowledge. This is what we did. We promised our people that we do not look at their data unless they allow us to do so. If we look at their data, there will be a visible sign for everybody to know that someone has been looking at the data. This makes sure that people can trust the government with their information and with their data. What happens then? Maybe this is encouragement for you as well. When you have done these first phases of digitalisation, people start to demand more. All the mothers were demanding—I am a busy mother I am working, I want to see what my child is doing at school and has to do for school, online.  I do not want to write letters to the teachers etc. Of course, now our e-school is online.  I can see what my 9-year-old is up to in school. If he is missing lessons, I get an SMS if I have asked for this service.

Now the new technologies—AI is taking root and robots. People are demanding that we would be proactive as a state. I know I am entitled to a service, so why do I have to ask?  Honestly speaking, if the state knows that somebody is entitled to universal support, the state should simply pay.  However, it needs legal space. For privacy, for protection of data. Legal space for allowing algorithms to decide and do something to real people is a better new world.

I would like to conclude my remarks with this: with legal space is as important as technological space, which you are creating here rapidly also. Legal space makes people trust the digital environment. Legal space where people actively participate in developing technologies and using technologies for themselves gives you a much better understanding what it is the private sector demands from the same legal space. We are all in the same sandbox, playing with the same tools, digital tools and in the future AI tools. When my government regulates for digital and AI we are regulating for ourselves, not those others in the private sector. We have to protect ourselves, our services, our citizens, our businesses. However, we understand, because we are in it together. This creates this positive spiral, which has made ICT 6% of Estonian GDP.

The final point I would like to talk about identification. There is no safety or trust in the internet without the government guaranteed digital ID. In Africa you can do this for the whole continent. I think that would be the biggest single element on your path to get this done. It is from the moment when everyone has digital ID that everybody has a connection point with their governments. Everybody is equal. It is a great equalizer. It is also a great equalizer on the job market. If people really know with whom they are working with, then they can hire them online, they can work online, they can offer their services online. The major problem globally in the Internet today is that people do not have safe identification tools. This is the role of governments. This can never be the role of private sector, because similarly as we guarantee the passports, only the governments can guarantee the digital IDs.

I wish you all luck and when I come back let’s say in ten years’ time I will need some medication, my Estonian doctor will write my an prescription, I will come to a far place in Africa, show my digital ID and you will fulfil my prescription. This is my dream for this continent, egoistic, but my dream. I wish you all the best in developing digital Africa. Thank you for listening!