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Estonia: Government Drafts Legislation For Information Age

By Villu Arak

Estonia, like other countries, is grappling with changes brought about by the revolution in information technology. RFE/RL Estonian Service editor Villu Arak says a lack of up-to-date legislation has held the country back, but new laws should propel it swiftly into an increasingly electronic future.

Prague, 16 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Last November, the U.S.-based Electronic Freedom Foundation was invited to present a report on information policy in the Baltics. In the Estonian countryside, officials pulled off the highway and entered what looked like an ordinary farm building. Inside, farmers and school children were writing e-mail, surfing the Web, and playing computer games. One member of the delegation (Andrew Fowler) told Wired News: "It was really a time warp. You're in the middle of rural Estonia. But when you poke your head inside, you see the country's future."

Like other countries around the world, Estonia is coming to grips with changes brought about by the information revolution.

Until recently, the Estonian government seemed unsure of its role in promoting the use of the Internet and World Wide Web in education and commerce.

Tarmo Kalvet of the Archimedes Foundation, which heads the efforts in Estonia of the European Survey of Information Society (ESIS), says it wasn't until last year that the government came out with a policy statement for the information sector.

"I think that until 1998, the Estonian parliament and the government were not creating clear rules of the game. Instead they seemed not to consider the regulation of the area at all. Starting in 1998, however, there have been remarkable developments."

That statement was soon followed up by an implementation plan that addressed information policy with regard to education, regional development, modernization of the government, and accession to the European Union.

Usually, the words "innovation" and "government" don't fit in the same sentence, but Estonia wants to change that. The government's policy statement says that regulators should offer "opportunities" for innovation.

Kalvet says the government may succeed in spurring interest in technology, but he says a little help from private businesses and organizations will be needed:

"The private sector seems to understand the developments, and (it is) demanding that the government re-engineer itself and establish the rules necessary to operate in an information society. Non-governmental organizations are also doing their part in supporting the movement towards the information society. For example, by the end of 1999, they will have financed about 70 Public Internet Access Points across rural Estonia. These are publicly accessible computer rooms with two to six machines each."

Providing simple Internet access is one thing. What has been missing so far, however, is a comprehensive set of laws to facilitate the growth of electronic commerce. Make no mistake, this is not just an East European failing -- it took until July of this year before such a bill was published in the United Kingdom.

In Estonia, the legislative landscape in this field has been barren for almost a decade, with little more than a telecommunications act from 1991. Needless to say, much has changed since those days. Eight years later, the areas that need direction and support are e-commerce and virtually all other things Internet.

Legislation is being drafted and adopted to facilitate and regulate those enterprises. Parliament recently adopted a law regulating cable networks and providers of telecommunications services in the potentially lucrative world of high-bandwidth data pipes.

A new telecommunications act has been drafted that would fully liberalize the telecommunications sector by 2001. That means the freshly privatized Estonian Telecom, the national telecommunications monopoly, would face well-financed competition in less than 18 months. To consumers, this will translate into affordable local and long-distance phone calls, a necessary first step toward other Internet-based services. The act would also create an independent communications board to take over regulatory responsibility from the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

The Education Ministry has gotten into the game, supplying schools with computers to train teachers in interactive teaching methods. Already the program has reduced the number of students per one computer to a respectable 28. Not bad for a yearly budget of $3 million.

Another closely watched endeavor is the national ID-card project. Now nearing its pilot stage, the personal identification card will carry visual and electronic information. Estonians will use their ID cards for everything from voting to paying for public transportation to keeping track of health insurance.

But the most revolutionary new bill, attracting the most attention, is the proposed Digital Signature Act. Expected to be approved this autumn, the bill would make a digital signature just as legally binding as its ink-on-paper ancestor. The ability to use encrypted digital signatures will have a far-reaching effect on how companies, individuals, and the government interact.

If the Estonian government makes the e-signature into a standard legal instrument, that would go a long way toward proving that even governments can innovate. Intel's Rob Eckelmann would probably agree. This month, the vice president of the world's largest computer chip manufacturer paid a visit to Tallinn for a first-hand look at how Estonia is plugging in.