Hungarians protest world’s 1st Internet tax

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

When Hungary’s leadership proposed a tax on internet usage, over 100,000 people in capital city Budapest splintered out in full-out demonstration: fists in the air, glowing behind cellphone flashes, marching straight to the front door of the Economy Ministry while relentlessly shouting their concerns and throwing old computer parts at the boarded-up building, according to the Wall Street Journal.

From the Economy Ministry, the demonstrators trailed through downtown Budapest, shouting “Free Internet,” “Free Hungary,” “Viktator,” “We want democracy” and “Europe.”

The public outcry did not go without avail: Prime Minister Viktor Orban appeared on his weekly interview on Hungarian state radio Friday to say the government would drop the proposed tax plan for now, saying “we (Hungarian ruling officials are) not communists, we don’t govern against the people.”

Vivacious protester organizers – who posted a global call for action in a press release that described the tax as the Hungarian government’s “latest and most aggressive crackdown on our fundamental democratic rights and freedoms” that “risks disconnecting Hungary with global information and communication channels” – celebrated the suspension of the tax plan.

The tax plan would have taken effect Jan. 1, charging 150 forints (60 cents in U.S. dollars) per gigabyte (GB) of data traffic. Early estimates propose the total taxation would amount to nearly $83 million per year.

To put it into perspective, Netflix uses one GB of data per hour at its “standard definition” setting. The average movie is 130 minutes long, according to data released by BusinessInsider. That equals to roughly $1.30 in taxes per Netflix movie watched alone.

After the initial protest on Sunday, government officials said they would cap the charges on Internet service providers at 700 ($2.89) forints per individual subscriber and 5,000 ($20.62) forints per corporation subscriber every month.

Government officials said the service providers would be responsible for paying the taxes, but opposition said the effects of the taxes would be inevitable for consumers.

Hungarians were not the only ones disheveled by the tax levy. Hungary, part of the European Union since 2004, received criticism from the EU commission regarding the tax plan.

Ryan Heath, spokesman for EU Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes, said the digital aspect of European economy keeps the EU from falling into recession. Furthermore, Hungary’s digital footprint falls behind the averages of several other EU countries.

The EU commission fears that not only would the plans place a wrench into Hungary’s economy, but other countries would imitate them as well.

“If Hungary becomes a precedent in this instance, it can become a problem in a lot of other member states and can be a problem for Europe’s wider economic growth,” Heath said.

Despite his radio appearance, Orban, now in his third consecutive four-year term, said that the plan is controversial but provides a fair way of recovering telecommunication taxes lost as people move from text messaging and phone calls to free online communication methods.

Orban plans on reviving the proposal next year once more information on it has been circulated.

The New York Times reported Balaz Gulyas, 27, former member of the Hungarian Socialist Party, set up the Facebook page early last week to inspire and organize the protests.

“Those who use the Internet see more of the world; that’s why the government doesn’t want a free Internet,” Gulyas said Sunday on the page.

In less than 48 hours, the page had garnished more followers than Hungary’s governing party, Fidesz- roughly 240,000 with 30,000 RSVPing to the demonstration.

Bloomberg reported the protests went from centralized toward the issue of Internet taxation to a general demonstration of democracy:

“The Internet tax is a symbol of the government’s authoritarianism,” Zsolt Varadi, a co-founder of the defunct iWiW social-media website, told the crowd in front of the Economy Ministry in central Budapest. “We not only need to defeat the Internet tax, (but) we need to believe that we are capable of criticizing and influencing the state.”
“It is not only because of the Internet tax,” one woman said to Euronews, “but we are also fed up with the government, we are fed up with stealing and corruption.”

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