Estonia, e-Residency, and what I believe will come


The Republic of Estonia achieved independence from Russia a hundred years ago, and because they were so persistently a target of cyber-attacks from Russia, they developed what is arguably the most open AND secure infrastructure of any country on earth. Estonians are considered to have the most digitally advanced society ever.

Estonia consistently ranks among the highest in the world in press freedom, economic freedom, civil liberties, education, and they provide universal health care, free education, and the world’s most generous benefits to new parents. With a population of only about 1.3 million, Estonia is one of the smallest members of the EU, yet its economy is one of the fastest-growing, and most advanced and high-income.

In 2005, Estonia became the first country to hold elections over the internet, and in 2014 they were the first to offer e-residency. This new concept was developed largely as a way to grow their tax base without the increased infrastructure & benefits costs of providing for more people. It is not a path to citizenship, and does not grant one a passport. It merely provides an official government authentication, one that an increasing number of financial institutions and other services providers in the country can accept.

I have been an Estonian e-resident for 3 years. That means I have a national card suitable for identification in many circumstances (such as online), even though I have never set foot in the country and have no Estonian heritage. Though I have not done so (yet), I could start a completely virtual business there tomorrow, charging Euros instead of Dollars and serving customers in accordance with Estonian law.

The reason I became an e-resident of Estonia because I wanted to support such creative thinking outside of our national boundaries. I want us to be able build intellectual assets that can be managed and governed independently of our physical citizenship. A boundary governments (including Estonia) continue to work within, is that the bodies we have and the ideas we have need to be managed by the same countries and legal systems.

Many of the regulations and protections for people and organizations in any country retain physical limitations, but as more and more human and corporate activity moves to the digital sphere, it could (and I believe will someday) be released from the legacy one. Estonia is perfectly positioned to become the foundation of a new form of economic and intellectual property rights, which need not directly conflict or overlap with the existing economic, intellectual, or physical property rights of any person.

Case in point, the internet itself. Access to the internet is governed by laws that vary from country to country. Likewise, what kind of kinds of data capture is allowed or enforced and who owns and is liable for what is a legal matter for each jurisdiction. But our activity on the internet need not be protected or policed at this level, or this level alone. Just as legal contracts (such as for marriage) or substance regulations (such as with cannabis) can be different at the regional level than the federal level than the global level (state/province vs country vs UN), so too can behaviors and constructs be protected or prevented or prosecuted differently at different levels.

As the persistent leader in secure and free digital governance, business, and culture, Estonia could lead the way to a different kind of internet. A place where intellectual property and the very nature of collaborative ideas are understood entirely differently than they have been until now. Just as they introduced the concept of e-Residency, a voluntary and intellectual (as opposed to physical) identity mechanism, they could pave the way for a voluntary and intellectual platform for connection and idea exchange.

What I’m talking about is an internet domain, like a country but for our intellectual selves instead of our physical selves. I’ve been toying with this idea for over twenty years, wondering why I can’t seem to find anyone else talking about it? It’s not like it’s a threat to our existing systems or way of life. Not anymore than the existence of a local government is threatened by the existence of a regional government or the existence of a dollar is threatened by the existence of a euro. They’re for different functions, and can compliment each other quite nicely.

Remember, there is nothing natural or pre-ordained about the agreements we humans make with each other. Though we treat concepts like money or countries or identities as things, the truth is that we made this stuff up. We humans are a creative lot, and so we’ve created a lot. And we’re not done yet!

Sometimes it takes something like blockchain currency to upend our understanding of the concept of money, proving that we never really understood it very well in the first place. Sometimes it takes something like e-Residency to upend our understanding of what a country is and does, proving that we never really understood that very well either. Sometimes it takes a new form of governance to create a new form of identity, proving that we can redefine ourselves is a way that actually suits us better.

We take it for granted now that our intellectual selves can be somewhere without our physical selves needing to be there too. So once physical access to something like the internet has been granted, why is it that the places we go and the things we do thereafter are governed by that same physical jurisdiction of our physical bodies? What about the data about us? Why is that governed so poorly the world over?

I believe the only reason is that we haven’t made up something else that works better yet.

I believe we can, and in time we will. And I’m happy to support efforts that take us that direction because I believe it is one of the more important challenges that we humans can tackle these days.

How about you?

While you comment below, here’s some music from an Estonian jazz quintet that I think is pretty cool.