Digital Brief: Estonia Special

The Digital Brief is Euractiv's weekly tech newsletter.

Welcome to EURACTIV’s Digital Brief, your weekly update on all things digital in the EU. You can subscribe to the newsletter here

This week, EURACTIV Digital has been in Estonia, talking to political officials, startup entrepreneurs, and purveyors of Estonia’s digital revolution, as a means to map out the country’s future as the EU’s tech powerhouse.

In terms of Estonia’s positioning in Brussels, during my week so far I’ve done my best to find out who the next Estonian Commissioner could be.

Rumours in Tallinn are that the favourite could be ex-Minister of Economic Affairs Kadri Simson, who is chairwoman of Estonia’s Centre party in the Parliament.

However, one source told me that Simson is keeping her cards close to her chest at the moment, for fear of ruffling the feathers of rivals who may also have an eye on the Commission post.

Meanwhile, yesterday I asked Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid about how she reflects on the performance of Estonia’s current representative in the Commission, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip.

“He’s a doer,” she said, adding that he would do even better for Estonia’s digital clout in the European Parliament, where he is campaigning for a seat once more, as part of the upcoming elections.

Nevertheless, surely Estonia would maintain control of the Digital portfolio in the next Commission?

“That, of course, depends on the choices of the next Commission President,” Estonia’s Ambassador for Cybersecurity, Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar told me. However, with Finland also making broad strides in the digital arena, there is clearly the fear that Estonia could lose its digital top-spot.

This is particularly concerning in the development of 5G infrastructure in Estonia, after the Tallinn Circuit Court recently cancelled a public auction for 5G frequencies following a competition complaint. As a result, Estonia definitely “won’t be one of the first providers” of super-fast mobile speeds, the current Chief Technology Officer in the Economics Ministry, Kristo Vaher, informed me. 

However, one area that Estonia continues to be head and shoulders above the rest, is in cybersecurity.

“Over the past 12 years, our cybersecurity standing has been solid,” Tiirmaa-Klaar said, with reference to the country’s cybersecurity strategy, which encourages the uptake of new skills in the field. It also helped lay out the foundations for the 2018 establishment of Estonia’s cyber command centre, which seeks to bolster the country’s cyber defence capabilities.

Tiirmaa-Klaar also revealed that the Estonian authorities are “continuing to offer assistance and technical know-how” to Ukraine in the field of cybersecurity. Hardly surprising, judging by Estonia’s intrinsic concern over Russia’s offensive capabilities as well as the latter’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which Estonia heavily criticised, and the 2017 Petya cyberattacks in Ukraine.

However, there are many in Estonia who think that cyber warfare is not always a bad thing.    

Taavi Kotka, former CIO of the Estonian government and ex-advisor to Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, told me how the 2007 attacks that hit Estonia were necessary for the country to advance its digital agenda.

“Something triggered us towards change…it comes from pain,” he said, referring to Russia’s hacking campaign against Estonia that hit a wide range of critical infrastructures throughout the country.

Kotka insists, however, that it was a formative experience which helped to make Estonia what it is today. “I suggest that every county have a cyber war, I actually recommend it,” he said.

My trip this week was interrupted by an impromptu visit by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right who is seeking to drum up support for the far-right in the upcoming EU elections.

After having surged in the polls during March’s general election, her hosts, Estonia’s far-right EKRE party, are now part of a governing three-party coalition in the country’s parliament, the Riigikogu, in which they occupy 19 seats out of 101.

I pressed Kotka on whether he thought that EKRE’s inclusion in government would have an impact on Estonia’s digital agenda for the future. Not a chance, he said, adding that the country’s digital standing is of importance to all across the political spectrum.

One area in which Estonia as well as the EU more generally needs to do more is in the uptake of digital skills. “The skills we’re teaching our students clearly don’t match the needs required in Europe,” Tanel Erm, Managing Director of Estonian tech success Skype, told me.

“We particularly need people who are trained up in cloud-based skills.” he added. “There’s definitely more the EU can do to help.”

In other news…

Huawei have come out with fighting talk, after having been blacklisted by the Trump Administration. A statement from the company on Thursday says that the move will only “serve only to limit the US to inferior, yet more expensive, alternatives, leaving the US lagging behind in 5G deployment.”

The European Disability Forum have released a report on the disability perspective for emerging technologies, in which they submit a number of policy recommendations, including the suggestion that the EU’s tech workforce isn’t diverse enough.

Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Google and Amazon have all signed up to French President Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Christchurch Call, which aims to “to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.”

On Tuesday, Access Now wrote to the governments of Bulgaria and Cyprus “to request investigations into export licenses that have reportedly been issued by Bulgarian and Cypriot authorities to NSO Group – which has previously come under fire for reportedly supplying the spyware that was used as part of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

I recently spoke to Jessikka Aro, a Finnish investigative journalist, who went undercover at St Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency, otherwise known as the Russian ‘troll factory.’ She told me that the Russian authorities would “definitely” be in the process of targeting the EU elections with disinformation campaigns.

In light of this, I contacted all of the major EU parties running in the upcoming elections. They gave me their take on how EU media integrity could be safeguarded for the future.

 

On My Radar
GDPR anniversary: Next week on Wednesday, Justice Commissioner Vera Jourovà, will rally the positives of the EU’s data protection clout, looking back on one year of the General Data Protection Regulation.

***

What else I’m reading this week:

 

Upcoming events

Join us in Brussels on June 5, for our stakeholder workshop on AI and Ethics, and how facial recognition technologies fit into the mix.

Also, stay tuned for a high-level event on Media Policy presented by Fondation EURACTIV, coming up towards the end of June at the European Parliament.

 

***

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.