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Estonia and Iceland, the best in internet freedom globally

The renowned U.S. think tank, Freedom House, published its 11th Freedom on the Net report this week. It analyses internet freedom and online rights across 70 countries, covering 88% of the global internet users. The overall conclusion is dim, though – increasingly, more countries are not permitting their people to access the internet at all, many block people´s accounts on varied platforms, or worse – arrest and kill them for voicing their opinions. 

Estonia has managed to hold on to its second position after Iceland in terms of the best environment for internet freedom. Despite Estonia’s high ranking, the report highlights aspects that warrant special attention. Iceland was ranked as the best environment for internet freedom for the third year in a row, 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,” commented Estonian e-Governance expert Hille Hinsberg from Proud Engineers. They served as one of the national rapporteurs for this report.

Estonia´s e-Government and public services not affected by the pandemic

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,” explained Hinsberg.

Internet freedom keeps declining globally

The COVID-19 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, tracking tools and manipulation of the general public with disinformation are on the rise.

The greatest deteriorations were documented in Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda, where state forces cracked down amid electoral and constitutional crises. Myanmar’s 14-point score decline is the largest registered since the Freedom on the Net project began.

More governments arrested users for nonviolent political, social, or religious speech than ever before. Officials suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms. Authorities in at least 45 countries are suspected of obtaining sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology from private vendors.

China ranks as the worst environment for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row.

Amended laws not in effect yet

While Estonia is still ranked among the top, the report highlights several aspects that should pique the attention of anyone responsible for safeguarding those rights. “We use telecommunication devices daily, such as mobile phones, smart devices, and the internet, and we all have several social media accounts. Everything we do online leaves behind a lot of data. In such circumstances, we should be able to trust our government that has amassed both communications data as well as biometric data about us,” noted Hinsberg.

In Estonia, she pointed out that relevant laws have recently been amended, although their effects on individual rights are yet to manifest.

For example, the Estonian Parliament, Riigikogu, is currently reviewing amendments to the Electronic Communications Act to prevent cyberattacks and mitigate 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 communications data in criminal proceedings is prohibited until relevant national legislation on data use and storage has been harmonised with relevant EU law.

Biometric data aggregation 

The newly adopted Act for the Establishment of Automatic Biometric Identification System Database provides the legal basis for creating 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. Although the act has been adopted, the Estonian Chancellor of Justice has set up a working group to analyse risks arising from collecting 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.

Internet freedom is not under threat in Estonia

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,” said Hinsberg.

Hinsberg encourages people to show greater interest in exploring how their data is being used.

This can be done by using the data monitor application on www.eesti.ee. To keep people informed about individual rights on the internet, the Office of the Chancellor of Justice has prepared the e-Governance Charter.

The report on internet freedom in Estonia was prepared by Proud Engineers, an independent private company at the invitation of Freedom House. The index presented in the report is the aggregated sum of the following three sub-categories: access and connections, restrictions on online content, and the protection of user rights. Proud Engineers is an independent consulting firm based in Estonia that specialises in digital society solutions and collaborates with public and private sector organisations worldwide.

The Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House covers the period from June 2020 to May 2021. The assessment has been drawn up based on current events and standard practices in the technical, political, legal, and public (including online and social media) spheres.

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