Estonia has been ranked in second place in U.S. think tank Freedom House's global Internet freedom index and maintained its previously high score.
Freedom House published its "Freedom on the Net 2020" report for the 10th year in a row, analyzing the rights and freedoms of people in 65 countries in public webspace.
Estonia's overall score of 94/100 has remained as high as in the previous two years. Iceland came first with a score of 95/100.
The index covers areas, such as obstacles to access, lack of unfounded restrictions on online content, ensuring user rights, as well as the freedom and responsibilities of online user behaviour.
Laura Kask, one of the Estonian contributors to the report, CEO of Proud Engineers said: "The Estonian government places no limitations on internet access, few limitations on online content, and ensures robust protections for user rights. This approach served Estonia well during the COVID-19 pandemic, as society was able to function with relatively little interruption by making use of digital public services."
She adds that, although Estonia ranks high globally, the report sets out signals that are worth paying attention for all institutions who exercise oversight on rights and regulations.
"We need to be careful in keeping the balance between the obligation of telecommunications companies to store data and this data being accessed by law enforcement in order to avoid excessive interference with privacy - for the purposes of national security, for investigating and prosecution of criminal offenses," says Kask.
According to another rapporteur, open government expert Hille Hinsberg, internet freedom is not at risk in Estonia, constant vigilance is needed to notice any warning signals.
Governments around the world have used the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to expand online surveillance and data collection, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control.
"We witness restrictions on rights in other countries, indicating that erosion of internet freedom can take place slowly and emerge as a series of changes in regulation and by government decisions. Therefore, the issues related to privacy, free speech, data protection must be constantly addressed," said Hinsberg.
She added that authorities as well as online publications need to stay alert to cases that undermine free public debate.
The Estonian rapporteurs point out that people can monitor how their data is used on the www.eesti.ee portal. Guidance on the rights and legal protection can be found in the Charter "Everyone's rights in an e-state" prepared on the initiative of the Chancellor of Justice.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said it is an important recognition for Estonia as the leading advocate of internet freedom.
"Estonia considers online freedom an integral part of human rights. The availability of internet makes countries more transparent, strengthens the civil society and grows the economy. Whenever we are sharing our digital lessons with other countries, we always explain that only a free society can be a truly successful digital society," Reinsalu emphasised.
He highlighted the fact that Estonia was an active member of the Freedom Online Coalition.
This year, Freedom House commissioned the independent private company Proud Engineers to compile the report on Estonia.
The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net covers the period from June 2019 to June 2020. The assessment is based on public information and reflects issues affecting online freedom, including current technical, political and legal environment and public media space including online and social media.
The overall findings of the report were that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. For the 10th consecutive year, users have experienced an overall deterioration in their rights, and the phenomenon is contributing to a broader crisis for democracy worldwide.
Editor: Helen Wright