Wednesday

29th Jan 2020

Interview

'You can't use 18th century law for a digital world'

  • Andrus Ansip: 'I hate geoblocking' (Photo: epp group)

Andrus Ansip is serious about all things digital. He has just voted online in the Estonian parliamentary elections, quotes tech media and is up with what journalists write on Twitter.

As a vice-president of the EU commission, Ansip is in charge of establishing a "digital single market", which should bring down regulatory barriers and reduce costs for online businesses, services and customers in the EU.

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  • Ansip uses his iPad in EU commissions meetings, other colleagues stick to paper files (Photo: European Commission)

Unlike many of his colleagues who still bring big paper folders to the EU commission meetings, the former Estonian Prime Minister - used to a paperless government from back home - sports only his iPad and makes a point of keeping print-outs to a minimum.

"I was the first person in Estonia to give his digital signature, back in the days when I was mayor of Tartu, the second-largest town in Estonia," Ansip told this website on Tuesday (24 February).

During his nine years as prime minister, he oversaw the transformation of his country to a highly-digital society, where most dealings with the state or with private companies are online.

Key to this process is the smart ID card every Estonian citizen has and which can be used through a card reader and a special programme to sign documents online, fill in requests, for instance, for welfare benefits or for casting one's vote in national elections. The same facilities (minus voting) are now offered to foreigners as well, in a project called "e-residency".

Ansip recalls convincing Estonians to use these facilities was a slow process. It took six years to get the first million digital signatures. But then, in 2007, the Estonian government introduced the "once-only" principle - that the state is not allowed to ask citizens for the same information twice.

This meant that ministries, police, land registrars, welfare agencies were "forced" to communicate and make their services more efficient.

"The population of Estonia is 1.3 million and Estonians identified themselves digitally more than 325 million times. It means Estonians are giving 1 million signatures per week already," Ansip said.

As for Big Brother fears - that the state gathers too much data on its citizens - Ansip said that rather than having one big database, the "Estonian solution" is to have several smaller ones which can be cross-checked.

He said that by using digital signatures, the Estonian state was able to save two percent of its gross domestic product per year, which is equivalent to the defence budget.

But why did Estonia, a former Soviet country, embrace digital life to such a high degree? Ansip said it may have to do with the fact that they had to build everything from scratch.

"No legacy is an advantage in some cases. Sometimes it's more difficult to change the existing system than to start from zero. When banks in Estonia started to act as commercial banks, they just took the best technology and made online banking free of charge," Ansip said.

"This is one of the main reasons even our elderly people are so familiar with computers - 99.8 percent of bank transactions are made via the internet in Estonia and nobody knows who those 0.2 percent still using bank offices are," he quipped.

Queen Ann's law

In his new incarnation as "digital single market" czar, Ansip hopes to replicate at EU level the success of what he calls trigger measures - like the 'once-only' principle in Estonia which gave digital signatures a bump from one million in six years to one million a week.

"The reform of copyright legislation is one of these triggers," Ansip said, in reference to a pending reform which would give users the right to access online content in any EU country.

"Queen Ann in the year 1710 gave the right to make copies and somehow the mentality of the existing copyright system is still at the very beginning of the 18 century, but the world is digital already."

Currently, many subscriptions to online services - ranging from BBC shows to Netflix series and Spotify music - are limited by what is called "geoblocking", a country-by-country fragmentation of the online world.

"If you bought content legally in one country, you have to have the right to use it in another country," Ansip said.

"Honestly, I hate geoblocking," he said.

Ansip argued it is wrong to think film producers gain from smaller markets and discriminating against people based on where they come from.

He showed sympathy for people who argue that geoblocking, rather than programmes that give them a different geographic location online (VPN), should be illegal.

"In the physical world indeed, geoblocking is illegal because it is discrimination. If somebody says 'we will not sell this water to some people because of their nationality,' then it's discrimination. Huge scandal. But in the online world, they say it thousands, millions of times per day to our citizens. And it's not discrimination, it's part of our business model."

"I don't think we have to accept these kind of situations where people in the online world cannot do the same things as in the physical world," Ansip said.

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