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Creating digital society requires political will: Estonia ex-president

2018/07/19 21:21:33

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia

Taipei, July 19 (CNA) The key to developing a digital society lies not just in technical issues but in a government's political will to devise policy, build infrastructure, promote computer studies and educate its politicians, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia, said in Taipei on Thursday.

Technology is something that is so cheap and so readily available these days that anyone or any country, no matter how rich or poor, can digitalize, Ilves said in a keynote speech at the Digital Innovation Forum.

"The problem comes in with sort of 'do you have the political will to do it?'" Ilves said. "A lot of countries do not have the political will to take the same steps."

Estonia, the world's most advanced digitalized society, has the highest global ranking in terms of internet freedom, while its cyberspace estate has been ranked as having the best security in Europe, said Ilves, who served as president from 2006 to 2016.

"In my country, you have to show up in person only for three events that involve anything regarding government regulations," Ilves said, citing marriage, divorce and property purchase.

He said Estonians are required to appear in person to handle real estate transactions because "we live right next to a big country (Russia). We want to be sure of who buys land and property."

Over the past 15 years, Estonia has provided internet access to all its schools, improved computer literacy among the public, set up an e-government infrastructure, and most importantly guaranteed data integrity and privacy, Ilves said.

Quoting the popular saying, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," Ilves said the fundamental problem lies in proving a person's identity.

Estonia, however, has addressed that issue by enacting a digital signature law and creating an end-to-end encryption, two-factor authorization system that is highly secure, he said.

Under the system, Estonians use their unique chip-based identity card and two PIN codes to transmit encrypted data that can be decrypted only by the recipient, Ilves said.

As part of Estonia's strategy to manage the security issue, it has created "X Road" -- a distributed data exchange layer that allows its various e-services databases to link up and operate -- as opposed to using a central data base, he said.

Estonia has also opened the world's first "data embassy" outside its borders, in Luxembourg, an idea that was pushed through after Japan's loss of data as a result of its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011, Ilves said.

"It takes a while to get where we are -- about 15 to 20 years," he said. "It was very hard work on the political side. The technical side was always very easy. If you want to digitalize, you have to work on educating your politicians."

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, also gave a keynote speech at the forum, in which he introduced WikiTribune, a news service for paid professional journalists to "work side by side as equals" with volunteers of the Wikipedia community to fight against fake news.

When quality journalism is lost because of fake news and financial pressure within the news industry, people will lose trust in the media and it will thus become easier for people who want to stir up unwarranted controversy, he said.

"Because they can point to the media and say that this is fake news, and the public do not know what to believe, this is a very dangerous state of affairs," Wales said.

(By Shih Hsiu-chuan)