I loved living in Estonia.
I have an Estonian wife and two beautiful children who were growing up as Estonians. Estonia was my permanent base, and the place where I wanted to retire.
Because I felt free here,
because I felt the energy of innovation,
because I believed that Estonia embraced change and innovation.
And I imagined Estonia to once be one of the most advanced countries in the world.
When Bitcoin came along, I felt that it fitted exactly with everything that Estonia stood for.
I was hoping to stimulate a little community of enthusiasts, who would explore the possibilities of this new technology. Maybe the next Skype, could be created.
In the beginning it was nearly impossible to get your hands on some Bitcoins, eventually I found ways, bought a few here and there. My first transaction was for just 20 dollars with some guy in the US I never met, but whose profile appeared trustable.
And so I decided to help friends and acquaintances get some too, so as not to have to blindly trust someone on the other side of the planet. 20 Euros here, 50 Euros there. In doing so I met people with a shared interest in this technology. Together we dreamed of the things we were going to build one day… in Estonia, and why Estonia would be the perfect place for it.
But that all changed one sad day in February 2014.
While nobody knew how Bitcoins were going to be classified, and it seemed every country came up with something different after lengthy internal deliberation, out of the blue I received a threat, a 32 000 Euro fine, and 3 years in prison, if I had traded Bitcoins without a license. I was the first person in Estonia to find out how the state classified Bitcoins – it had not even been published anywhere.
I thought that surely, there was some limit, it can’t be so that amounts of a few hundred Euros are taken so seriously to start threatening people with years in prison. But the police assured me there was no limit, it didn’t matter how much I traded.
Nowhere in Estonia could you exchange Bitcoins for currency, and there was just one restaurant in Tallinn where you could spend Bitcoins, surely this doesn’t meet the criteria set out in the law. I wanted to talk about it and discuss it with the police thinking that they would be reasonable, and I even offered to meet them.
But clearly they were not interested in talking about such things, they wanted to force me to cooperate with an investigation against myself, by supplying them with information that they could use against me, and that carried a risk of 3 years in prison.
However I grew up, as many people in West, believing that we have rights – and I believe that forcing someone to cooperate with an investigation against themselves is a violation of their basic human rights.
It also turned out that I am the only person they approached, a half dozen other people that used localbitcoins, a much better known site, and that had clearly traded larger amounts than I ever did were never approached by the police. Neither were other site operators such as Spectrocoin that clearly aims at the Estonian market and clearly is a professional organization. Neither does the police try to impose these laws on companies like BitStamp that trade hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of Euros worth of Bitcoins with Estonian residents without ever meeting them in person.
Or is it because, during the private Estonian lessons offered by the Finnish IT company I used to work for in Estonia, I thought it would be a nice exercise to make an Estonian version of my US hosted hobby site? Does the Estonian police have jurisdiction over the Estonian language wherever it’s used in the world?
It became clear to me that Estonia is not really the country I thought it was. Back in 2013 I would have never believed that a secret interpretation of a law could be applied arbitrarily to one or two individuals for the purpose of setting an example. And I would have had a hard time believing that they’d try to force people to cooperate with an investigation against themselves.
The more I analyzed the situation the more I realized that most likely none of this would have happened to me in the Netherlands.
Not only does the Dutch state have the courtesy to publish it’s interpretations of the law as they apply to new things and give a deadline in the future for when they’ll start doing so, it’s also illegal, as far as I know, for the Dutch police to selectively apply the law to just a few individuals, they either have to apply it to everyone or to no-one.
Furthermore in the case of Bitcoin, Dutch state agencies have taken the very reasonable position of saying that it is up to lawmakers to decide how Bitcoin is to be treated. And I wholeheartedly agree with that, as in democratic society, such choices should be made by the representatives of the people, and not by unelected civil servants.
In the Netherlands I found a lively Bitcoin community, with dozens of people who did the same things I did. None of them faced what I have to face in Estonia, and some have started building serious startups in the Bitcoin space. In fact the Netherlands is now 3rd in the world in terms of investments in Bitcoin startups. After Silicon Valley and London.
Thus I decided with great regret to leave Estonia and take my family with me and move to the Netherlands. I feel that Estonia has missed a great opportunity, and that it will end up paying a high price. The longer it takes to rectify the situation, the bigger the loss to Estonia will be.
For me personally my Estonian dream was destroyed, Estonia it turned out is not for me. And our two children who we had wanted to raise as Estonians and be proud of their country will now grow up to become Dutch instead, raised by a father who has lost faith in their country of birth.
And so I ask you, for the sake of Estonia, please stop this madness, let innovators innovate without fear, and let the Riigikogu decide what’s best for the country.
And for the sake of my children, please help restore my faith in Estonia.
-Otto de Voogd