Estonia ranked second for internet freedom

Freedom House's Freedom on the Net 2021 rankings.
Freedom House's Freedom on the Net 2021 rankings. Source: Freedom House

Estonia retained its second place in U.S. think tank Freedom House's global Internet freedom index and maintained its high score. Despite Estonia's high ranking, the report highlights aspects that warrant special attention.

For the third year in a row, Iceland was ranked as the best environment for internet freedom, garnering 96 points out of 100. With only two points behind the winner, Estonia ranks second among the 70 countries assessed in the report.

"Estonia, known the world over as one of the most advanced digital societies, enjoys good connectivity and high rates of access, few state-imposed restrictions on online content, and robust safeguards for human rights online," commented Estonian e-Governance expert Hille Hinsberg, who served as one of the national rapporteurs for this report.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the online environment supported people's day-to-day activities and operations. "Estonia's e-government and digital public services were not affected by the pandemic and people managed well thanks to digital public services and a secure digital identity," explained Hinsberg.

The pandemic underscored humanity's dependence on digital technology, however, freedom on the net is waning. Globally, internet freedom has been declining for the past 11 years. For example, the use of tracking tools and manipulation of the general public with disinformation is on the rise.

"The restrictions on rights in other countries demonstrate clearly that changes in internet freedom manifest themselves in a series of events and new regulations. Therefore, we must always seek to maintain balance between restrictions and safeguarding fundamental rights. In this respect, both the legislatures and the supervisory authorities have an important role to play," Hinsberg said.

Everything done online leaves a mark

While Estonia is still ranked among the top, the report highlights several aspects that should pique the attention of anyone who is responsible for safeguarding those rights.

"We use telecommunication devices on a daily basis, such as mobile phones, smart devices and the internet, and we all have several social media accounts. Everything we do online, leaves behind a lot of data. In such circumstances, we should be able to trust our government that has amassed both communications data as well as biometric data about us," noted Hinsberg.

She pointed out that, in Estonia, relevant laws have recently been amended, although their effects on individual rights are yet to manifest. For example, the Riigikogu is currently reviewing amendments to the Electronic Communications Act for the purposes of preventing cyberattacks and mitigating the risks of political manipulation by technology owners, including large foreign companies. The proposed solution would have telecommunications companies disclose the equipment and software used, whereas they argue, in turn, that such monitoring would distort free competition.

In addition, the obligation to retain communications data and the procedures for using that data are also in the process of being clarified. The Estonian Supreme Court has ruled that the use of communications data in criminal proceedings is prohibited until relevant national legislation on data use and storage has been harmonized with relevant EU law.

The newly adopted Act for the Establishment of Automatic Biometric Identification System Database provides the legal basis for the creation of a database which would allow the aggregation of biometric data currently dispersed across different databases. The objective is to make it easier for the government to process these data, for example, to combat crime more effectively. Although the act has been adopted, the justice chancellor has set up a working group to analyze risks arising from the collection of personal data for one purpose and their use for another. The group is tasked with clarifying the procedures for which biometric data will be used and whether individual rights are sufficiently safeguarded during such processing.

According to Hinsberg, internet freedom is currently not under threat in Estonia, but nevertheless, a keen eye must be kept on relevant developments. "Each individual can do their part to maintain the trustworthiness of online content. The more sensitive and complicated is the topic, such as individual versus collective decisions in health care, the more important it is to use caution when distributing information," said Hinsberg.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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