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Huge Internet Tax Protests Galvanize Government Opposition in Hungary

Over 100,000 people marched through Budapest on Tuesday to protest against a proposed internet tax, and the increasing authoritarianism of Hungary's government.
Photo by András D. Hajdú

Over 100,000 Hungarians marched through Budapest on Tuesday evening to protest a proposed tax on internet traffic which they see as part of a broader plan to "build a digital iron curtain" around Hungary and steer the country away from European democratic values.

Since Sunday's 40,000-strong demonstration, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government has offered to cap individual monthly bills at 700 forints ($2.90) per device and 5,000 forints ($20.60) for businesses.


The legislation appears muddled and confused, however. Under the initial proposal the average internet user would reportedly have been 65,000 forints out of pocket — roughly the monthly rental cost of a modest downtown Budapest apartment.

Now what began as a single-issue protest appears to be gaining a wider support and significance for voters who feel they are not represented by Hungary's mainstream parties.

All photos by András D. Hajdú

Balázs Gulyás, a student and political activist, set up the "100,000 Against the Internet Tax" Facebook group on October 21. Within four days it had more than doubled that targeted number of followers. Gulyás stated that: "Orbán wants to create a nation of digital illiterates, like himself — he is said to not be able to tell a fax from an email." He added that it is a "typical example of Orbán's utterly cynical attitude that he wants to give the internet tax revenue to tax inspectors, and selected members of the internal security apparatus."

Gulyás briefly appeared on stage at 6pm on Tuesday, in front of a crowd of varied age groups at József Nádor tér, a downtown square. He introduced Zsolt Varády, who co-founded, the pioneering Hungarian social media website, some two years before Facebook.

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Varády called the internet tax "a symbol of the government's despotism," adding that: "We are many and our goals are clear, so we will be able to prevent the introduction of the tax." He told the crowd that Hungarians should not only block the internet levy, but also feel empowered to influence the other policies of the government, "from whom we have no idea what to expect from week to week."


The second speaker, Károly Füzessi, said if a "national consultation" is not started on "this unfair and unnecessary tax," then protests will continue. He urged protesters to gather again the night before parliament votes on the bill on November 18, and called for "zero tolerance" to the tax, finally instructing the crowd to proceed across town and over to Buda, to join a "mega-selfie" at the symbolic "zero" milestone next to the landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

As the crowd left the square to the strains of Pink Floyd's "Money", Füzessi told VICE News that "as the government claimed on Monday that it has always been inclusive and open to dialogue, we have invited Orbán to a public debate, ahead of the vote in parliament."

The demonstrators waved European Union, US, and Hungarian flags, as well as banners depicting figures from Che Guevara to Orbán mocked up as Hungary's Communist tyrant Mátyás Rákosi, through to simply "ERROR." They chanted "Europa," "Demokracia," and "Fidesz Maffia," referring to Orbán's Fidesz party.

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The march passed several symbols of what they see as the arrogant cronyism of the Orbán regime: numerous "National Tobacco Shops" — nationalized tobacconists awarded to party loyalists as a state monopoly was created two years ago — under the spectacular Buda Palace that Orbán will soon make his office, and past the historic, recently renovated Várkert Bázar market building, which the PM opened to great fanfare in election week, only for it to close again just days later.


Krisztián Bán, a 28-year-old member of Occupy Hungary, told VICE News: "This is just the final straw. There have been so many lies and corruption scandals that people just switched off, but now this is coming up to the surface." He mentioned a recent tax office scandal, official anti-European Union rhetoric, Hungary's closer relations to Russia, and the banning of homelessness from public spaces as examples of the authoritarian tendencies of Orbán's government, which retained power in April in a ballot that OSCE election observers described as "free but not fair."

István, a 50-year-old from Miskolc, eastern Hungary, told VICE News that the government's self-proclaimed "unorthodox" economic policies have forced him to move from the down-at-heel industrial town to find work in the capital.

The government has so far failed in its attempt to dismiss Sunday's event as an opposition rally — despite Gulyás's earlier membership of the Socialist Party and his mother's former role as an MEP.

Several other Hungarian cities hosted major marches on Tuesday night. People here serious about retaining access to the internet, declared a fundamental right by the UN in 2011, without supplementary government charges.

Yet for now it remains unclear exactly how much the internet tax plan has galvanized opposition to Orbán, which has been fractured and ineffective for years.

"In the minds of most Hungarians, democracy has not really existed for the last 25 years. Now the 'netizens' can start something, we can reach a critical mass, and it can spread," Bán added.

Follow Daniel Nolan on Twitter: @nolan_dan