Understanding Internet Taxes and Protests in Hungary as Debates over Strategic Architecture

2014 CGCS Visiting Scholar James Losey discusses the proposed Hungarian internet tax and its resulting fallout. 

At the end of October, 100,000 people gathered to protest a tax on data traffic proposed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The proposed tax was cited by protesters as another attempt by the Orban government to restrict freedom of information. These claims are not without reason. Since taking power and increasing representational power in elections this year, the Orban-led  Fidesz government continued efforts to restrict media and information freedom, drawing concerns from the European Union and human rights groups  in addition to domestic opposition. The regulatory changes and resulting protests and criticism illustrate the

In his forthcoming book Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication, Monroe Price, the director the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, argues that a necessary condition of the modern Weberian state is the ability to influence legitimate use of information. A critical component of this is the use of strategic architecture: the shaping of media systems and control of underlying infrastructure to control narratives. In context with other changes in media laws, the proposed internet tax illustrates an effort by the Orban government to influence the media system, resulting in domestic and international tensions.

October’s internet tax proposal, framed as a measure to address budget gaps, represents five years of efforts by Fidesz to influence the strategic architecture of media in Hungary the resulting protests.  After winning elections in 2010 Fidesz  began aggressively overhauling media regulations and created   Media Council, with five members aligned with the ruling party, to enforce new regulations. The legislation  introduced vague restrictions on freedom of the press including fines for offensive coverage and restrictions against unbalanced coverage.

The media law brought criticism from Europe and the US and incited protests at home. The Washington Post called the regulatory changes  “the Putinization of Hungary” and Dunja Mijatovic, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media cautioned that new laws  created a framework for silencing dissent  and  . Népszabadság and Népszava, two Hungarian newspapers published “Freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end” in 27 European Union languages on their front page.  On January 5, 2011 websites including the Pirate Bay organized a blackout. A second protest on January 13 drew 10,000 protesters and a follow-up on January 27 brought 5,000 people to Parliament square.

The new laws, effective as Hungary took over presidency of the EU, brought immediate tensions European criticism. Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda,   In March 2011 the Hungarian Parliament voted to amend the media laws. However, a dominant coalition in European Parliament called for further revisions to harmonize Hungary law with Audiovisual and Media Services directive. Protests continued with 30,000 people taking to the streets to protest the changes.

The Media Council  provides a mechanism for Fidesz to control media. For example,the Media Council rescinded the spectrum licens for Klubrádió, a liberal radio station, and the station announced they would have to shut down. This led to protests outside the Hungarian Radio headquarters. It took two years of arbitrary bureaucratic  and multiple court cases for Klubrádió to  a long-term spectrum license.

The 2014 internet tax proposal represents the latest Orban effort to use legal authority to shape the information space in Hungary—one that furthers tensions with Europe and within Hungary itself. Amy Brouillette, director of the European Media Project at the Center European University in Budapest, framed the proposed tax as a “creation of a digital iron curtain around Hungary.” Kroes called the tax a “shame for users and a shame for the Hungarian government” and lent her support to protests. Following 100,000 taking to the streets, seen here in this video from the Good Drones Lab, the proposal was retracted.

Tensions over information control in Hungary demonstrate the multi-level debates over strategic architecture and the mechanisms through which the Orban government is shaping the Hungarian media system. Hungary’s media and internet in relation to Europe and the world is more than a debate between a state and external actors. It is a tension between domestic politics and international norms for freedom of the press and expression. Increased control over the Hungarian media system is the result of one party’s rising political control placing the Fidesz government in tension with opposition domestically and in Europe. Through this lens, Orban illustrates a paradox of a modern state: how much can a party in power maintain control over domestic information while also participating in interdependent global networks.

 

James Losey has five years experience in public policy and over ten years researching the intersection of information, technology and power. He is currently a PhD candidate with the School of International Studies and the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden working on a dissertation focused on the tensions between states and internet companies and the relationship to national sovereignty, citizenship and the flow of information. Additionally, he is an affiliate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication. Previously, James has been a Google Policy Fellow with the Global Network Initiative and a Consortium on Media Policy Studies fellow.

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