Estonia's experience with blockchain in governance
By T.R. Raghunanandan, 16 Mar 2018

This blog is part of a series on blockchain technology, governance and its implications for e-Governance in India. 

Does the control that citizens have over the access to their data, undermine the effort involved in transforming Estonia into a digital society?

Not really.

This is because while certain kinds of personal data, like health and educational records are private and access is gained only if the data owner permits it, with alerts to prevent peeping Toms from gaining access, other kinds of data such as business and land ownership records are open by law. Tracking the business interests of people can be done in a matter of minutes. In the case of voting, voters can avoid polling point intimidation; it’s a non-issue if one does not have to go to the polling booth, and if one can vote, and change one’s vote up to the deadline, from home, online.

We often discount the possibilities that such an open transformation into a digital society can offer. However, in Estonia, some of the lines of evolution seem almost natural. For a country of just 1.3 million people, attracting talent to their nation to keep innovation and production high is a real challenge. Typically, nations do this by tweaking their immigration policies; which incentivise and encourage talented people to physically move into their territories.

Sadly, it looks like India took the wrong road on the fork. It has a lot to learn from Estonia, but it seems like that opportunity has been forsaken.

Estonia does this differently. By transcending the conventional thinking of a ‘population’, as large blocks of people who can move across physically across borders, they aim to get talent worldwide, to get virtually connected to their country. So far, under e-Estonia’s e-residency programme, 28,000 people have applied for Estonian residency rights. Most applicants are entrepreneurs and innovators. e-resident growth exceeds the birth rate. And their activities, all across the world, are in a sense, Estonian start-ups. The only catch is that 88 per cent of applicants are men; so there is now an active search for female entrepreneurs to seek e-residency in Estonia.

The biggest impetus for innovation in Estonia, is freedom from fear and obstruction. Here is where the government of Estonia comes in. An example is the way in which the judicial system, notorious elsewhere for delays and corruption, has been reformed in Estonia.  Even as countries like India debate on the increases required in courts and judges, in Estonia, everybody is connected on the criminal justice and judicial system. The police and forensic scientists log into the system and file their reports, as also lawyers and judges. In civil disputes, plaintiffs and defendants log in and make their averments. Prison warders are on the system, thus enabling prisoners to be teleconferenced into the court room, avoiding expensive and risky physical transport. Every single point of delay has been identified and addressed.

While the scale of e-Governance in the judicial system might sound unattainable in India, the health provisioning model is something that we could do. Simple systems enable paramedics to access health records even as an ambulance rushes to the patient's home, so that they are well prepared to deal with the person's condition. However, here too, access into the health record is logged back to the owner of the record- the patient. The patient knows who is checking out her health related details, which, though electronic, is still in the private domain.

How did Estonia embark on this journey? How did they get this far? How long did it take?

All countries have to deal with the same set of concerns when they put down the structure of a digital society, namely, privacy, data ownership and safety. Most countries take the conventional route, which even as it speaks of personalisation and anonymity, opts for a centralised data architecture that takes away control over data from citizens and enables it to be sold by brokers. This results in a backlash of citizen distrust, which then broadens into a wider suspicion of all technology. And of course, the actions of most governments justify these fears.

Estonia, on the other hand, has consistently sold the transformation of their country into a digital society as something that does not dehumanise their people and convert them into a set of numbers. This commitment to protection of human values and preferences, even as technology is brought in to transform the lives of people, is a critical emotional cornerstone of their policies. Estonia harks to its past and its culture to position technology as the friend and trusted companion of its people. In Estonian folklore, there is a creature known as the ‘kratt’, which is a set of inanimate objects that the devil will bring to life for you, in exchange for a drop of blood. The kratt then becomes the Estonian’s companion and protector. In today’s day and age in modern Estonia, the kratt could be a robot, or an algorithm that protects and works for the one who gave a drop of blood, namely, the citizen who gained an electronic identity.

In contrast, India seems to have taken the centralisation path, with the Aadhar card. Through increasingly stringent directives and threatening deadlines for linking various services to Aadhar, with the Supreme Court remaining ambivalent in this regard, India is squeezing out the last vestiges of privacy from people. Data security of the centralised database, and whether citizens will have the rights to prevent snoopers from mining this data, is still not certain.

Sadly, it looks like India took the wrong road on the fork. It has a lot to learn from Estonia, but it seems like that opportunity has been forsaken.

This blog has heavily relied on Nathan Heller’s article that appeared in the New Yorker Magazine.

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