Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has announced that he will scrap plans for a controversial internet tax – for now. “The internet tax cannot be introduced in its current form,” Orbán said in a radio interview on Friday morning.
The tax, which was due to be voted in on 17 November, had drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the streets of Budapest on Sunday and Tuesday. Critics saw the tax as an attempt to crack down on opposition voices and curtail civil liberties.
“If the people do not just dislike something, but think it is irrational, then it should not be done”, the leader of the rightwing Fidesz party said in the interview.
Neelie Kroes, the European commission’s outgoing vice president and commissioner for digital agenda, welcomed the U-turn, tweeting: “I am very pleased for Hungarians today. Their voices have been heard. And I’m proud the European commission could and did play [a] positive role in defending European values and a digital Europe.”
But protesters warned that plans for some form of internet tax are not off the table entirely, with Orbán having announced a national consultation on taxing online profits for next year.
The organisers of the One Million for the Freedom of the Press movement told the Guardian that they would hold a party to celebrate their achievements so far, but that they feared that Orbán had not registered their true concerns.
“For us, the internet is a symbol that we belong to Europe, not to Russia. For many in Hungary the internet has become a remedy from the government, but now Orbán is trying to pull down a digital iron curtain like they have in Iran or China”, said Gulyás Balázs .
Hungary’s prime minister has been repeatedly accused of turning his back on democratic principles. Since coming to power in 2010, he has overhauled the constitution, pushed through a law to muzzle the press and changed the electoral system to boost the mandate of the ruling party , lending him the nickname “Viktator” among domestic critics.
Orbán was re-elected with a two-thirds majority in April this year, in spite of his party gaining 21% few domestic votes than in 2010. But protests against the internet tax have managed to reinvigorate Fidesz’s critics.
The proposed tax, originally set to come into use in 2015, saw users being charged 150 forint (£0.40) per gigabyte of data usage, with a monthly cap of 700 forint (£1.80) for private users and 5,000 forint (£13) for companies. The government claimed that it could raise up to 65 billion forint (£166m) via the tax, which it would use to finance extending the national broadband infrastructure.
Orbán’s critics’ main contention is that the tax scheme could be easily circumvented by users changing their IP addresses or using foreign providers. Politicians including Bill Clinton and Nicolas Sarkozy have floated proposals for a “bit tax”, only to find that their plans were impossible to realise unless carried out by several big industrial nations at once.
Further, there are concerns that Hungarian internet providers would pass administration costs down to their customers, thus discouraging internet usage across the country. In a state already under scrutiny for attacks on press freedom, one of the biggest sources of alternative news would become harder to access.
At protests over the course of last week internet entrepreneur Zsolt Varády described the tax as “a symbol of the government’s capriciousness”. More than 20,000 people took to the streets in Budapest on Sunday, with over 50,000 protesting two days later.
The U-turn is highly uncharacteristic of a leader known for his ruthless demonstrations of power. “The retreat means Orbán’s Fidesz (party) realised that they can face bigger losses if they continue to walk down the path of introducing the tax”, Kornelia Magyar of the Hungarian Progressive Institute told Agence France-Presse. “The fact that Orbán called for national consultations seems to suggest that this is not a definitive retreat.”
By Edos News