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Internet Governance 8 June 2018

Future Thinking: Arnaud Castaignet on Estonia’s e-citizenship

In 2017, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In May 2018, we interviewed Arnaud Castaignet, head of public relations for Estonia’s e-Residency programme.

Mr Arnaud Castaignet is the head of public relations for the Republic of Estonia’s e-Residency programme, a government-issued digital ID offering the freedom to join a community of digitally empowered citizens and open and run a global EU company fully online from anywhere in the world. Previously, he worked for the French President François Hollande as a digital strategist. Arnaud is also a Board Member of Open Diplomacy, a Paris-based think tank established in 2010, and a member of the Young Transatlantic Network of Future Leaders, a flagship initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States specifically geared toward young professionals 35 years old and younger. Estonia not only became the first country to say that Internet access was a human right, but has given their citizens free public WiFi, enabled them to vote online since 2005, and are protecting them with strong privacy, transparency and data protection laws.

The Internet Society: Estonia’s e-Residency programme bridges traditional borders by offering any citizen of the world the opportunity to become a digital citizen of Estonia. How’s that working for you?

Arnaud Castaignet: The e-Residency programme was created in December 2014 with a radical but simple idea: why should a country only offer its services to its own citizens and residents and not also to anyone from anywhere in the world? E-Residency is a transnational digital ID accessible to anyone from anywhere in the world, giving access to Estonian e-services without actually coming to Estonia. Although Estonia sees access to Internet as a right, we know access to services is totally unfair around the world. Unfortunately, if you are not from the right country, if you don’t live in the right place, you might not be able to access basic services that are necessary to create and run your business. With e-Residency, we want to provide all people with equal access to services and opportunities.

Two core values are driving our action. The e-Residency programme is inclusive: every person on the planet is able to become an e-resident of Estonia. Our programme is also empowering: we believe everybody in the world should have an equal opportunity to access the tools they need to become a successful entrepreneur and reach their full potential. We believe in this principle of fair equality of opportunity. Those who have the same level of talent and capability and the same willingness to use those gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class or origin, where they live or decide to travel. Our message to entrepreneurs is “focus on your ideas, your business, your product; we will keep the way open for you.”

The Internet Society: Is it true that even the Japanese prime minister is an e-resident of Estonia?

Arnaud Castaignet: Several Head of States became e-residents as an acknowledgement of Estonia’s advanced digital society and as a support for our innovative programme. Shinzo Abe is one of them, but also Angela Merkel and Xavier Bettel, for instance.

The Internet Society: Do you think other countries will, in the future, follow Estonia’s example in offering e-residency to attract investors/businesses?

Arnaud Castaignet: We believe that, by definition, no model can be fully duplicated from one country to another. Having an e-Residency programme was only possible because, first, Estonia has been building a digital society throughout the years. It is also influenced by the country’s mindset regarding innovation and transparency, our belief in the need to build more business ties with the rest of the world, and our vision of the need for States to transform themselves into something more agile, inclusive and empowering.

But we often receive political delegations from countries willing to be inspired by our experience and we hear about projects such as “m-residency” in Azerbaijan or Lithuania’s plans to use blockchain technology to allow company creation. We are quite enthusiastic about such developments because it will force us to remain innovative. The world is changing very fast and countries can easily fall behind if they refuse to address new issues or bury their heads in the sand.

We are always willing to share our experience and expertise, not only about e-Residency, but also about how States can evolve. Just to give you an example, each year, Estonia saves the equivalent of 2 percent of its GDP by using digital signature. If this system would be generalized everywhere, many European countries could benefit.

The Internet Society: Estonia is often cited as the poster child of e-governance with its radical digital developments. Can you tell us more about what differentiates Estonia from other countries in this regard?

Arnaud Castaignet: I think the main difference is that Estonia’s digital society is based on trust. The government of Estonia is built upon a solid foundation of transparency, with personal privacy and data integrity taken very seriously. Each citizen (or resident, or e-resident) knows exactly which administration has checked its personal data. Digital society and e-governance can only be created if there is trust between the people, state authorities and private enterprises. Building trust has got very little to do with technical solutions, but has a great deal to do with mindsets and culture. Changing this mindset is much more difficult and time-consuming than creating technical solutions. This means a lot of everyday work in building openness and safeguarding privacy and transparency.

It also cannot be built overnight: it’s a long and challenging process, requiring help and collaboration from different institutional and private actors, and a matter that it feels natural to address at the very beginning of the process of digital transformation of a country. Information must be shared, administration and government must be transparent, informal forms of interaction must be built, and you need to develop internal secure IT systems for public institutions that can be trusted, from the inside and the outside.

The Internet Society: What is the feedback to your programme? Has there been backlash, especially at a time when nationalism appears to be on the rise in some European countries?

Arnaud Castaignet: We now have more than 40,000 e-residents from 150 countries. Their stories are of course very diverse but they all have one thing in common: our programme helped to solve issues faced by these entrepreneurs and freelancers around the world. These individuals now see Estonia as a problem-solving country and we are proud of it.

With e-Residency, we show that a country doesn’t have to choose between being inclusive to the rest of the world or to make its population wealthier. It is by opening our digital borders that we generate Estonia’s revenues for the future that will benefit all Estonian citizens. We know there are opposite trends in other countries and some governments are more interested in building new walls, but building barriers will only prevent their citizens from gaining new and more opportunities. Walls do not protect anyone.

The Internet Society: Blockchain underpins many of your services, but some people are arguing that blockchain’s benefits are unreasonably hyped. What has your experience shown?

Arnaud Castaignet: The Estonian government has been testing blockchain technology since 2008. From 2012, blockchain has been in use in Estonia’s registries, such as national health, judicial, legislative, security and commercial code systems, with plans to extend its use to other spheres such as personal medicine, cybersecurity and data embassies. We believe blockchain has a great potential because it can improve trust in systems and, in our case, it adds an extra layer of security.

Whether we like it or not, the world is becoming more decentralised. The development of blockchain technology should make us build new lending relationships between citizens, companies and the state. I would say it is for the best because this is one of the reasons why blockchain has such a great potential. Not only does it have the ability to remove entrenched middlemen, but it can also improve the overall transparency of our systems. Of course, coordination and openness amongst technologists, designers and citizens is necessary. However, we must not be overly optimistic about the capacity of technological innovation, on its own, to change the course of history. People always come first.

The Internet Society: Can you tell us more about how Estonia encourages transparency in legislative processes? Why is it important, in your experience, to involve all stakeholders in governance? 

Arnaud Castaignet: The Estonian public can read every draft law submitted since February 2003. This system is also using blockchain technology. Readers can see who submitted the legislation, its current status, and changes made to it as it passed through the parliamentary process. Once a proposed act becomes law, it is published in the online state gazette, another searchable database that acts as an open legal library. The idea behind it is to increase the level of transparency in the state, to cut down corruption, and encourage citizens to take an active interest in legislative affairs. In 2017, the citizen initiative portal Rahvaalgatus.ee was launched, also making it possible to compose and send collective initiatives to the Estonian Parliament.

The Internet Society: What does the Estonian digital example tell us about the future of governance? What will the role of governments be in the future? Will they become more technocratic or neutral stewards of citizens’ increasingly digital lives (taxes, e-commerce, etc.)?

Arnaud Castaignet: We are facing an unprecedented era of change with multiple waves of technology enabling new business models and reshaping our economies and societies. Increasingly accustomed to living and working digitally, citizens might now have higher expectations for government’s technological adeptness and capability in the future. Most government structures and processes date to earlier than the 1950s and some of them seem to be more interested in building new walls rather than better serving their population in the digital age. These governments may face irrelevance if they don’t adapt to the new needs, habits and practices of their citizens.

The Internet Society: With Estonia’s ID card being central to life in Estonia – including banking, benefits, paying for parking tickets, accessing medical records, voting, renewing licences, etc. – how do you deal with fears about data protection, cybersecurity, and privacy?

Arnaud Castaignet: We must deal with any situation with full transparency because our digital nation depends on the trust of all its people — citizens, residents and e-residents. You cannot expect trust if the State is not transparent and accountable. If there is no citizen control of the use of personal data, citizens would be legitimately worried about their privacy. In Estonia, to ensure transparency and accountability, citizens are allowed to monitor their own privacy. They can trace anyone who has tried to access their data by logging on to the state portal, eesti.ee. There have been a few cases — among doctors and policemen, for instance — where people have been sentenced for unethically accessing certain databases. Protecting the integrity of our digital identity is always a top priority.

But being pioneers in these fields also means we will sometimes be among the first to encounter new challenges. Ten years ago, Estonia was the first in the world to experience a nationwide cyber-attack, for example, although no data was compromised. The attack served as a wake-up call for how the country’s digital infrastructure could be secured through radical new technology. Of course, no system can be fully secured but we still believe paper-based administrations are less secured than digital ones.

The Internet Society: Could your e-Residency programme redefine what it means to be a country in the future? Do you think digital identity will one day extend to constitutional rights or actual citizenship too, and not just everyday matters?

Arnaud Castaignet: Our secure digital identity system and e-services facilitate locational independence. The state serves not only its sparsely populated areas, but also the entire Estonian diaspora. Estonians who live anywhere in the world can maintain a connection to their homeland via e-services, contribute to the legislative process and even participate in elections. All of this facilitates the mobility of the population, while maintaining a strong link between them and public services. The e-Residency programme is now redefining this because it allows non-Estonians to benefit from these services; they use our country as a service. This was the idea behind the launch of our programme: why not also offer these e-services to non-Estonians, even those who do not reside in Estonia, who need better everyday solutions than those offered by their own states?

What we see is that this system also redefines what being an Estonian means. As President Kaljulaid said, “one can be Estonian in many ways. You can be an Estonian by thinking the same way we do, by having an interest in our country, by being an e-resident”. As I said, many e-residents want to know more about Estonia after they discover the country as a result of e-Residency. Some of them learn the language, others want to physically move here, and most of them become the best promoters of our country. They don’t give up their national identity, they add another that contributes to build their own personal identity and the way in which they define themselves. Global citizens need inclusive identities.

I, for instance, consider my personal identity as being fully global: I am an European, a French citizen of Cambodian origin, working for the Estonian government and benefiting from both French and Estonian services. Just as national identities are made up from national myths and ideas, personal identities are a construction based on several factors: the nationality and citizenship, of course, but also values, ideas, experience, areas of interests, among other things.

Right now, being an e-resident doesn’t mean having civil or legal rights in Estonia. If we reach hundreds of thousands of e-residents contributing to Estonian economy and benefiting from Estonian services, we will need to find ways for them to be more integrated to Estonian society, which will make the Estonian community much bigger. Estonia might one day have 1,3 million citizens but a community of 10 million e-residents feeling at least partly Estonian.

The Internet Society: What does this changing notion of identity mean for the future of privacy?

Arnaud Castaignet: Old, paper methods of identification – passports, birth certificates, driving licences, utility bills – are simply not suited for an online world. Access to health, banking and education also remains difficult for more than one billion people, including refugees and displaced populations, without an ID. The UN and other intergovernmental initiatives set a goal of providing everyone on the planet with a legal ID by 2030. It is well documented that those with access to a form of identity are better protected and able to access essential services than those who do not have an official identity. Digital identity and access systems can unlock a range of basic and empowering services for individuals, including financial inclusion, healthcare and education. They also hold significant promise for helping refugees and displaced populations to access immediate and longer-term services.

For public authorities, the key challenge will be to create harmonious digital bonds that secure the relationship between digital identities and wider society. This is only possible through a public framework of trust, built on guarantees of private data protection and security. To empower individuals, identity systems need to enhance security and convenience, preserve privacy and uphold individual rights and freedoms. Privacy and user control are core to realizing the full potential of digital identity. Stakeholders must create pre-emptive and responsive tools for safeguarding users against privacy violations, and establish legal frameworks and mechanisms for oversight and recourse in the event of misuse or abuse.

The Internet Society: What are your hopes for the future of the Internet? What are your fears?

Nothing new comes into our lives without a hidden curse. My biggest fear is that the Internet might help to perpetuate socioeconomic divides, especially if digital inequalities remain. In my opinion, the Internet must be a tool to reduce inequalities, whether they are digital, socioeconomic, geographical, etc. This is why topics such as net neutrality, for example, matter. When one attacks net neutrality, we know it will harm the poor because it reduces access to opportunities. We know from history that disruptive and game-changing ideas often come from the margins, not from big and established actors.

Of course, no one knows exactly how the Internet will evolve. I am convinced that, despite much of the negativity in the news right now, the overall trend appears to be positive for the opportunities that await our generation and the next one. My biggest hope is that Internet will allow more innovators to forge a way to the unknown by offering equal opportunities, thanks to access to services, information and education.  I am quite optimistic that governments and institutions will use the Internet to build more bridges and invest in skills development, and particularly soft skills – that combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, social and emotional intelligence, that are absolutely crucial in the digital age. These skills will help citizens to adapt to disruption and will facilitate social and geographical mobility – some of the main issues and opportunities of our century – and increase the knowledge of others, other cultures and people.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how the Internet might transform our lives across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.


Photo credit: Web Summit

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