When the Freedom Online Coalition, a 23-government organisation that promotes an open and secure internet, selected Tallinn as the site for its fourth annual Freedom Online conference, the choice would prove timely and relevant.
As delegates gathered this week for the event in the former Soviet state, tensions had escalated yet again in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin had declared the internet to be a CIA plot and proposed the establishment of a separate Russian national internet. He also apparently had taken over Russia’s largest social network, VK.
Estonia, which shares a border with Russia and has a substantial Russian-speaking minority amongst its 1.4 million citizens, knows what it is like to live with an unpredictable bear looking over its shoulder. It understands the uses and abuses of covert surveillance, and propaganda wars.
And, it gets the internet – both its pluses and minuses. On the positive side, the young state remade itself into one of the world’s most cutting-edge online societies, where nearly everyone files taxes and votes online, pays for goods and services electronically, and avails of widespread free wifi in cities and towns.
On the negative side, it endured a major hacking attack – waves of attacks stretching over many weeks – when in 2007, a Soviet war monument was moved from the city centre to the outskirts of Tallinn.
Unsurprisingly, the current situation in Ukraine and Russia has dominated the conference, which offers the chance for more than 400 senior government figures, civil society groups and businesses to gather and debate.
The tone over the two days was immediately set in the opening session by Estonia’s foreign minister and its president, who both referenced Estonia’s Russian connections.
“Having been forced to live under foreign rule for centuries, we are well aware of the value of freedom,” said Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet, opening the conference. The actions of Russia “are serious violations of international law”.
Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who can write computer code himself and is regularly involved with international discussions on internet governance and development, noted in his opening address that actions, such as internet site or platform shutdowns by governments, supposedly to protect citizens, “are more often done for the sake of the security of authoritarian and undemocratic governments”.
Giorgi Margvelashvili, president of Georgia, added in a keynote, “our security, our protection of identity was lost when we were in war with the Russian Federation”. This was particularly the case when Georgia found it was deeply vulnerable to a Russian hacking attack similar to that experienced by Estonia, he said.