In an age when we can communicate, work, study, move money and even watch movies or read a book from the comfort of our own beds, iPhone in hand, it’s remarkable that our relationships with government are so un-techy. We have to fill out and sign paper forms in order to set up a business or pay taxes, we have Social Security numbers printed on a physical card that our entire lives are tied to and we even have to drive to a high school or town hall to vote in elections in person, often by marking a slip of paper with a pen. It’s all very … 20th century. Not so in the small European nation of Estonia, where you can pay taxes, buy and sell property, sign contracts, conduct business and even vote in elections online.

And when I say “you can,” I mean it — Estonia has taken its digital governance project to a whole new level since 2014, when it launched a program called e-residency. Now anybody around the world can apply online to become a digital Estonian, accessing the same online platforms that the country’s physical economy is based on and the same online public services that domestic citizens can utilize (although, of course, only physical residents of Estonia can vote).

In the past couple of years the decades-long effort to digitize the country’s government services has accelerated thanks to blockchain, the tech underpinning Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Blockchain, a way of storing information about transactions that is secure, distributed, encrypted and unchangeable, has the power to transform the digital infrastructure behind everything from Wall Street trades and movie streaming to industrial supply chains — and now governments are getting in on the action.

While Estonia is leading the way and might just be the world’s first crypto-country, its government is far from the only one finding public-sector uses for blockchain. The UK government is trying out a system to pay benefits claimants via blockchain, and the Australian government is “throwing money at” ways to replace separate passport and birth certificate databases with a single blockchain-based system, says Dr. Clare Sullivan, a cyber-lawyer at Georgetown University. The founder of Ethereum, the second-most widely used public blockchain system after Bitcoin, recently reached a deal with Russia’s state-owned bank to create a special national system called Ethereum Russia. And while China’s central bank declared Initial Coin Offerings illegal in a setback for the country’s private-sector crypto scene, it also recently developed a prototype of a potential national cryptocurrency.

And hopes are high that blockchain could soon enable other countries to join Estonia’s club of one that allows online voting in national elections — the holy grail of electoral reformists and govtech advocates worldwide.


Valerie Krutanova