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Internet

E-stonia: The EU's digital pioneer?

In Estonia, a broadband Internet connection is available everywhere. A young Estonian tells DW what it's like living in a completely networked European Union country and where the digital boundaries stand.

DW: Estonia's government considers Internet access something of a fundamental right for citizens. The city of Tallinn has introduced an @Internet sign - unique in Europe - indicating where wireless Internet connection is available. What's your digital day like?

Sandra Länts: There's free wireless Internet connection almost everywhere, so anyone with a smartphone has Internet access. It's all over in Estonia - even in [remote areas], you can get online with 3G or 4G. All restaurants, all bars have their own free Wi-Fi hotspot. Regardless of where you are in the city, you can log in and get online.

I always have my phone with me, and when I don't, I don't feel complete. I'm completely dependent on it. Like I always do my route planning and get a wide variety of daily information from the Internet, and use a lot of apps. I couldn't do without a smartphone.

There's also the so-called daily identification card, which you can use to register doctor's appointments, pick up medication from the pharmacy, or even vote online. With hundreds of government-related tasks intersecting at this one point, you'd have to really trust your government, right?

Sandra Länts

Sandra Länts

You can do everything with the card: vote, buy plane tickets, do online banking. I don't use it, because I'm not so sure about it. With voting, too, I'd rather go in person. Otherwise, I don't know what might happen with my vote or data. Since it was introduced in 2005, many Estonians are still skeptical - myself included, since I do so much online.

Internet is a fact of life for your generation. So where does your skepticism come from?

It actually really grew during my stay in Germany. In Estonia, almost everyone pays with a debit or credit card. But in Germany I learned that real, physical money matters. Cash counts, so to speak. Since then, I pay with a card as rarely as possible. I don't want anyone following my movements. My bank would be able to know everything that I do. And I'm a little afraid of that.

How does Estonian digital life compare to its German equivalent?

The first month for me in Munich was a shock - there was no free Wi-Fi. Later it was okay because I bought a modem stick. But what really surprised me were the mountains of paperwork. There were always so many papers to fill out and turn in. In Estonia, you can register yourself [when you move] online. But in Germany, you always have to go in person. That was really strange for me - and a lot of work, because I always had to go somewhere, and organize my whole day around that.

Students enrolling at the Friedrich Schiller University in Germany (Photo: Jan-Peter Kasper)

Länts was surprised by all the paperwork she had to do in Germany, including during her studies

The thing that surprised me the most were the huge piles of paper that I needed for my university studies. I also got a paper statement from the bank via snail mail every month. That was funny.

In Estonia, the tax office automatically does your tax return. That's one big advantage of data exchange, right?

When my pay comes into my account, it's always accompanied by a statement that taxes are due - usually in spring. Then I just click on the link for whichever account I get my income, and see what I've received. The tax office automatically calculates how much in taxes I've paid, and how much I should get back. It only takes five minutes, and I end up knowing exactly how much I should get. I just confirm with a click, and the money reaches my account the next week. I don't see any disadvantages.

Sandra Länts works at the Goethe Institute in Tallinn. Estonian by birth, she studied German studies at Tallinn University and spent a year at Bamberg University in Germany.

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