e-Residency and digital citizenship
The origins of our name, and the evolving way governments are serving people beyond their borders
Why is e-Residency called e-Residency?
Back in 2020, we hosted a panel with the three founders of e-Residency on our 6th anniversary, and we asked them this very same question.
Ruth Annus, former longtime Director General of Citizenship and Migration Policy at the Ministry of Interior, noted that one of the initial working titles for e-Residency was “Digital identity document for non-residents.”
Ruth further explained that “if you already say someone is a non-resident, you exclude them psychologically.”
Siim Sikkut, former CIO of Estonia, added that “virtual Estonians” was also something included in some of the first policy documents.
Taavi Kotka, entrepreneur and former Vice Chancellor at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, also expressed regret about the name.
“We haven’t found a better term,” said Taavi. “Digital citizenship is not exactly true, and we are still criticized about the fact that e-Residency is a terrible name.”
And Taavi has a point. Even now, we still get messages from critics arguing that the term e-Residency is misleading, citing the fact that e-residents are not afforded physical resident rights and do not automatically become tax residents in Estonia.
But even with these criticisms, Estonia has pioneered a new nomenclature and taxonomy that appears to be enduring. Our Baltic neighbors in Lithuania launched a similar program called “electronic residency.” Azerbaijan has programmes called e-Residency and m-Residency, ‘m’ standing for mobile in this case. The latest variation on this theme comes from Ukraine, where the nation has just launched the pilot of its uResidency programme.
People also often refer to e-Residency as “digital citizenship,” or an “e-visa” which, as you can imagine, can cause even further confusion for people.
But what does digital citizenship actually mean?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines digital citizenship as “someone who is skilled in using the internet in order to communicate with others, buy and sell things, and take part in politics, and who understands how to do this in a safe and responsible way.”
Expanding beyond this traditional definition, digital citizenship is, however, a useful way to conceptualize the emergence of initiatives such as e-Residency, despite them not being directly linked to the legal concept of citizenship of a nation-state.
An academic study from 2022 looked at how “e-Residency creates new kinds or forms of relationship between individuals and states.”
Researchers conducted 25 interviews and discovered two distinct views:
- e-Residency is just a service between state and individual
- e-Residency offers a “digital belonging” to a state
Study participants in the latter group said they “perceived openness and inclusiveness…rather exceptional in the current ‘age of restrictionism’, characterized by states’ restrictive migration and citizenship policies.” as a reason for this feeling of digital belonging.
The concept of digital citizenship also features prominently in Balaji Srinivasan’s seminal book, The Network State, that has ignited a global movement. Interestingly, Balaji was also one of the very first e-residents of Estonia.
Balaji sees the development of “startup societies” as the first step to building network states, where digital citizens can “crowdfund for digital nodes” and eventually build real, physical communities.
No matter how one perceives the development of e-residency or digital citizenship in the future, all countries, whether they are existing states in the Westfalian sense, or future hypothetical “network states,” will need to think about how they serve and interact with people beyond their physical borders.
So for now, we see the terms e-resident and e-residency sticking around, even if their definitions evolve over time.