The Hungarian internet tax protests: freedom, modernity and the political power of technology
Elisabetta Ferrari, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
It is night time and the sky over central Hong Kong is dark. Thousands of people are gathering in one of Hong Kong’s central areas, in front of the headquarters of the Hong Kong Government. They are holding their cell phones towards the dark sky, illuminating the night with their screen lights. It is September 2014 and protesters are occupying this central square in opposition to the Chinese government’s proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s political system. These images were immediately picked up and circulated by both mainstream media and social network sites. CNN described the image, saying: “Photographed from above, the glowing screens of mobile phones held aloft by the sea of protesters have created an enduring image of the demonstrators’ solidarity” (Hume & Park, 2014). Quartz echoed this sentiment: “It was an image that fascinated the world—a sea of lights coming from thousands of Hong Kong protesters waving their lit up mobile phones in the darkness” (Lih, 2014). The iconic image of protesters raising their phones to the sky survived the demise of the Umbrella Revolution and travelled far away.
When thousands of people, led by student activists, started mobilizing in Hong Kong, footage and images from these pro-democracy protests spread across the world in mainstream media and online. It seemed to many as though the revolts, uprisings, and occupations that shook the Middle East, Europe and United States in 2010-2011 were about to make a forceful come-back – and in such an unlikely place as Hong Kong. The police’s decision to use tear gas on the occupation backfired, as powerful images – of protesters trying to protect themselves with umbrellas (Lee, 2015) –, circulated online. These images gave the movement its name: the Umbrella Movement. And yet, as iconic as the umbrellas became, it was another image – of phones lifted to the sky – that would be taken up by other social movements in very different countries in the following years.
This image first reappeared in Hungary, a month after the Hong Kong protests, when thousands of people mobilized to publicly protest a tax on internet consumption that was proposed by the conservative government. Lit phones were raised in the first demonstration that drew around 10,000 people to the center of Budapest, Hungary’s capital. However, it was the second demonstration in which protesters staged the most impactful version of the iconic image: this photograph captured 100,000 people crossing the Danube River on the massive Elizabeth Bridge in an aerial shot, as they lifted their illuminated phones towards the night. These protests and images of thousands made it clear to the world that there was great public support for the movement, and eventually the government withdrew the tax proposal.
Fast forward to spring 2017: Hungarian activists used the same action once again to protest against government-sponsored legislation targeting actors deemed to be foreign-influenced and hostile to Hungarian values. These organizations included civil society and activist groups, and the law was especially targeted at Central European University, the higher education institution founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros. Large mobilizations went on for weeks to protest the legislation against these organizations. In one protest, activists concluded a rally in front of the Hungarian Parliament at sundown and raised their phones to the sky. Journalists drew the link between these images and those from the internet tax protests and argued that demonstrators were using this imagery to remind the government of the successful protests of 2014 .
The circulation of the images and use and re-use of this visual practice continued throughout 2017 and 2018. In May 2017, when Romania saw massive protests against the loosening of anti-corruption legislation, the New York Times opened its coverage with a photo of three protesters holding their cell phones, their faces illuminated by the glow of the screens and the flashlight function (Gillet, 2017). In March 2018, the demonstrations that led to the resignation of Slovakian Prime Minister Fico also adopted this same iconic action (Santora, 2018). Again in Hungary, after the re-election of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in April 2018, protesters staged a huge demonstration. At dusk in front of the Parliament building, they once again took out their phones while they sang both the Hungarian and European anthems. In contexts as different as Hong Kong, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, protestors adopted the action of collectively lighting up their cell phone screens, knowing that the image would be featured and circulated in countless news reports and social media feeds.
We could tell a lot of stories by tracing this iconic protest action and the images that followed as they travelled around the world: a story about an interconnected and mediated world, in which the diffusion of protest tactics knows no boundaries. Or we could tell a story about spectacle, news values, imagery and media coverage of social movements. In the case of this short report, I’d like to suggest that this is a story about the power of discourses, whether in textual or visual form, that connect technologies to social change, freedom and democracy. In other words, the key question that we should be asking about this iconic action is not why it travelled so far away from a square in central Hong Kong. Rather, we should be asking why this action was (and still is) immediately legible as a political demand. What makes this tactic and the images of protesters holding their cell phones to the sky a pro-democracy one? What underlying ideas about technology does this action reveal?
To start making sense of how technology can become a symbol in political protests, I studied the Hungarian internet tax protests of 2014, interviewing nine key activists who were responsible for organizing the demonstrations against the tax and analyzing the way they talked about the internet in political terms.
The Hungarian internet tax protests
The last decade of Hungarian politics has been marked by the rise to power of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party. Orbán was elected Prime Minister in 2010 and then re-elected in 2014 and 2018. During his terms as Prime Minister, due to the strong majorities enjoyed by Fidesz in the Parliament, he has pushed forward a conservative agenda that he later described as “illiberal democracy” (Orbán, 2014). This illiberal democratic project relied on amending the Fundamental Law (i.e. the Hungarian Constitution) to tilt the balance of powers in favor of the government branch and weaken the power and independence of the court system (Bozoki, 2015; Human Rights Watch, 2013), enacting sweeping changes to media policy that undermined independent journalism (Brouillette, 2012), increasing taxes while cutting budgets related to healthcare, education, and pensions (Bozoki, 2015), and creating “enemies” of the Hungarian nation on whom any shortcoming of the government could be blamed (Csaky, 2017; Gőbl, 2018; Walker, 2018). These “enemies” include the European Union, refugees, “liberal” NGOs, and any actor that can be connected, directly or indirectly, to Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, including Central European University (Eotvos Karoly Policy Institute, Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, & Mérték Media Monitor, 2014; Mudde, 2017).
The Fidesz government has been fiercely opposed by a host of small mobilizations and civil society organizations. Two of the most well-known are Milla (One Million for the Freedom of the Press in Hungary) and Hallgatói Hálózat or HaHa (i.e. “student network”). Milla started as a Facebook-based mobilization and its use of digital media has been crucial for creating new spaces for protest (Wilkin, Dencik, & Bognár, 2015); while it focused on the issue of press freedom, it aimed to mobilize civil society against the general direction in which Fidesz had begun to lead the country. The HaHa student movement originally protested against the austerity cuts to public university funding, but the movement later moved to criticize the Hungarian political system as a whole and demand sweeping political reforms (Zontea, 2015).
Before 2014, these movements struggled to gather widespread public support or visibility. In October 2014, Fidesz clumsily announced that they were contemplating a tax on internet usage on both mobile phones and landlines. This “internet tax” would have applied to all internet consumption after a first untaxed gigabyte, with a levy of 150 Hungarian forints (about $0.50) for each additional GB. The proposal generated a wave of protests in the streets of Budapest – at that point, the most powerful mobilization against the Fidesz government since its election in 2010 and the largest demonstrations after Hungary’s transition to democracy in 1989.
The idea of a demonstration against the internet tax first came from a Facebook page that emerged in opposition to the proposal: Százezren az internetadó ellen, literally “One hundred thousand against the Internet tax”. Later, a small group of experienced activists mobilized quickly to organize the demonstrations. A first demonstration on Sunday October 26, 2014 gathered about 10,000 people, who marched through central Budapest (“Hungary: Internet tax angers protesters,” 2014; “Ungarn: Zehntausende demonstrieren gegen Internet-Steuer,” 2014). At the end of the demonstration, against the wishes of the organizers, a smaller group of demonstrators left the final destination of the rally and converged in front of Fidesz headquarters. This smaller group started to throw modems, routers, keyboards, and other pieces of electronic equipment against the empty building. Protesters had brought these electronic goods to the demonstration at the invitation of the organizers, who wanted to use them to visually communicate the backwardness of the internet tax, i.e. that the tax was as outdated as these old pieces of technology.
On Tuesday, October 28, a second demonstration brought 100,000 protesters to the streets of Budapest, making it the biggest demonstration (up to that point) after 1989, and thus also the biggest against Prime Minister Orbán since he took office in 2010 (Dunai, 2014). The second demonstration took a longer route, including a crossing of the Danube, which was immortalized in a series of iconic photographs and video footage of a wave of protesters crossing the majestic Elizabeth Bridge. In one of the pictures, they are portrayed while lifting their lit cell phones to the sky.
These two demonstrations had a visible effect on the Fidesz government. After the first one, the government announced that the tax would be capped to 700 forints per month ($2.40) per individual user and 2500 forints (8.50$) for businesses (Feher, 2014). When activists were already gearing up for a third demonstration, Orbán addressed the topic of the internet tax in his weekly radio address, claiming that the proposal had been misunderstood by the population and that it would not be introduced in that form; he also added that his government would not go against the will of the people because they are “not communist (“Hungary internet tax cancelled after mass protests,” 2014). As of 2018, no taxation on internet usage has been introduced or announced.
The internet tax protests have been considered a success on many fronts. First, they delivered a blow to the Fidesz government’s legislative aims and image. It was the first time – and to date, the only time – that Orbán’s government was forced to respond to popular mobilization. Second, the demonstrations were successful because of both the number of people who took part in them and their heterogeneity. Interviewed activists described how rare such mass participation is in Hungary, and also emphasized how extremely rare it is to bring together such a diverse crowd, including individuals across ideological divides, ages, and genders. One of the activists, Eszter (Note: pseudonyms used throughout), argues that “there were many young people in the streets, which usually never happens, and also the supporters of Fidesz were against the internet tax. This is why they stepped back” (Eszter). The mobilization of different constituencies, beyond the usual liberal and leftist civil opposition to Orbán, is seen as a decisive factor in the success of these protests. Speaking specifically of the second demonstration, another interviewed activist, Daniel, described how “there were, you know, these far-right-ish protesters next to pretty European-lover protesters, next to the previous mayor of Budapest from the liberal party, next to the American ambassador (…) Everybody was there” (Daniel). The activists claim that this extraordinary participation was enabled by the Facebook page, which hosted what another activist, Adam, called, “the biggest political Facebook event, like, ever”. According to those interviewed, relying on the Facebook page to organize the protest allowed the activists to reach a wider constituency than their normal activist circles.
Despite these claims about Facebook’s role in building diverse support for the demonstrations, the success of the internet tax protests is in many ways puzzling. After all, the tax itself was a small thing compared to many of the sweeping policy proposals made by the Fidesz government. Why didn’t equally large protests take place after the changes to Hungary’s constitutional order in 2011 or in response to ongoing corruption scandals (Gagyi, 2014)? Why was it that this small tax generated such a general wave of contestation?
The success of the protests surprised the organizers as well, with activists using the internet tax protests as an example of best practice in intervening years. One of the interviewees, László, explained how the protests are used in public discussions to demonstrate that it is possible to score a success against Viktor Orbán. Another interviewee, Eszter, reported that the internet tax protests made it easier to mobilize Hungarians afterwards, as it showed that protest could in fact take place in a largescale way and have a clear impact. As mentioned in the introduction, the protest action that is most associated with the internet tax protests – the lifting up of illuminated cell phones – was also reproduced in other anti-government demonstrations in 2017 and 2018, serving as a visual reminder of the events surrounding the internet tax.
In interviews, the activists consistently claimed that the success of the protests was determined by the issue itself: the internet and the attempt to tax internet consumption. When asked to explain this point, however, they make it very clear that the protests were about much more than the internet. In fact, before the government backed down with regard to the internet tax, the protests had expanded their demands beyond solely the Internet tax issue (see also Gagyi, 2014). Slogans changed from “Free country! Free Internet!” to “Orbán piss off! We want democracy! Europe, Europe! Russians go home! Filthy Fidesz, corrupt Fidesz!”. In other words, the internet was not just the topic of these demonstrations, it also became a very powerful political symbol around which Hungarians could rally and through which activists could launch a general contestation of Orbán’s illiberal democracy. The iconic image of protesters raising smartphones became the visual embodiment of a complex discursive construction that brought together the internet, freedom, and – as I argue in my research – Western modernity and mundanity. Its reappearance, in Hungary in 2017 and 2018, and also in Romania and Slovakia, speaks to the power of these discourses that are never just about the internet.
The Long History of Discourses Around Technology & Use in Activism
Questions surrounding the relationship between new technologies and activism have been central to recent social science research. From the Arab Spring in 2011 to the upsurge of digital activism in the period following the 2016 election in the United States, the use of media technologies for protest has been widely investigated. Academic research in this area has examined how digital media can change the logics of protest (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Gerbaudo, 2012; Juris, 2012), highlighted how internet technologies allow new voices to be heard (e.g. Bonilla & Rosa, 2015; Clark, 2016; Costanza-Chock, 2014; Treré, 2015) and explained the ways in which digital media might also be creating difficulties for activists (Dencik & Leistert, 2015; Kavada, 2015; Terranova & Donovan, 2013; Uldam, 2016). In general, scholars have focused a great deal on how activists use different types of technologies, particularly commercial social network sites like Twitter and Facebook. At the same time, there has been less research on the ways in which certain technologies can become symbols, used in protests for their conceptual value rather than just instrumental purposes and practices. Academic research has not yet developed a vocabulary to describe how the act of raising a smartphone to the sky during a protest can be unequivocally interpreted as a political statement.
To think about the political and symbolic dimension of technology in the internet tax protests we can turn to a variegated academic literature that has analyzed the social and political importance of technology, usually by looking at the history of different media technologies (among others, Mansell, 2012; Marvin, 1988; Marx, 1964; Mosco, 2004; Nye, 1996; Turner, 2006; Williams, 1975). These scholars tell us that societal fears and anxieties tend to be projected on all technologies when they are first introduced, and they also explain how different technologies become enmeshed with political motivations and discourses. Leo Marx (1964) described how the formation of an American identity was tied to the opposition and combination of the ideal of the garden and the image of the machine, highlighting how technology came to be a symbol of different political values, such as abundance, Republicanism and progress. Flichy (1995) points to the same dynamic when describing the semaphore telegraph’s symbolic use during the French Revolution when this technology was seen as the fulfillment of the revolutionary ideal of universalism. Mosco (2004) is even more explicit in tracing the connection between political legitimacy, neoliberal ideologies and certain “myths of cyberspace” in his work on discourses about the internet.
In this spirit, my research examines how the symbol of “the internet” was deployed during the internet tax protests and how protest organizers thought about the internet and used (consciously or unconsciously) the internet’s symbolic value as a mobilizing force. Through this analysis, I chart how specific political discourses about the internet structured and inspired the protests in Hungary.
Just about the internet… BUT more than just the internet
“Actually, I think this protest was not only about the internet. But it was about… it was also an anti-government protest. Because otherwise they wouldn’t destroy the headquarters of Fidesz. And I think for some people it was only about the internet, but for many people it was also about the government.” (Eszter)
According to the activists interviewed, the internet tax protests were successful because they were about the internet, but also because they were about much more than the internet. On the one hand, the activists found that the issue of the internet served as a simple conceptual focal point that was far easier to understand and rally against than complicated issues related to Constitutional reforms. A variety of citizens could grasp the significance of the protests and rally around the tangible demand of an untaxed internet, facilitating the assembling of large and diverse crowds. On the other hand, the slogans of the demonstration, the trashing of the Fidesz headquarters, the use of cell phones as an icon point to the fact that a mobilization formally “just” about the internet became a catalyst for a variety of political frustrations. As the protests evolved, the idea of the internet served as a powerful symbol to which a variety of constituents could ascribe their own political meanings. It is because of this power of the internet as symbol that it is unsurprising that the most effective challenge to the Orbán government surrounded an issue seemingly as insignificant as a small tax proposal.
Mundane modernity as a mobilizing discourse
“It’s against modernity, it’s against common sense. Yeah, it’s against common sense. And it’s socially unjust, and also even hard for jobs. You have lots of reasons, I think I used this anti-modern comment, against common-sense, it’s like a collection of arguments”. (Adam)
I spent quite some time during the interviews talking with the activists about why they thought the internet tax was such a worthwhile cause to rally against. In explaining this to me, they revealed a lot about the ways in which they (and other Hungarians) think about the internet. In the context of the internet tax protests, the internet was associated with four concepts: equality and development, future, rationality, and mundanity. Together, these four concepts form a discourse of what I’m labeling “mundane modernity”, in which three core themes of Western modernity (equality and development, future, rationality) are experienced through the mundane, everyday practices of the internet. The tax was thus wrong because, as Adam sums up in the quote above, it was against modernity, a modernity that Hungarians can relate to through the daily use of internet technologies. “Mundane modernity” was at the heart of the internet tax protests, and it was used in opposition to Orbán’s illiberal democracy.
Modernity, freedom and the internet
“I think the internet symbolizes, you know, openness, and like all the possibilities… (…) So it’s… you know, it also symbolizes that the internet is, somehow symbolizes freedom, the West, you know, belonging to the West instead of the East. (…) but you know what I mean, like symbolizing democracies, like versus dictatorships. (…) Symbolizing progress. So..”. (Petra)
The success of the internet protests turned illuminated cell phones into a symbol of success against the government which could then be deployed in subsequent protests in Hungary and beyond. That protest action channeled the discourse of “mundane modernity” in visual form. This discourse and action make sense as a political statement because of the ways in which the internet is associated with Western political freedom, in the way that Petra explains in the quote above. While international media talked about the internet tax protests as demonstrations in favor of internet freedom, the activists I interviewed reject this idea. The internet tax protests don’t tell a story about the political power of “internet freedom”. Rather, they showcase how certain visions of freedom get associated to the internet and deployed in service of political aims. Within this discourse of “mundane modernity”, this means both the political freedom of Western modernity and the consumer freedom of mundanity; the freedom to act publicly and the freedom to consume privately. Because of the peculiarities of the transition from socialism to democracy, which promised the achievement of both free markets and free elections at the same time (Offe & Adler, 1991), the intertwining of these two notions of freedom were particularly powerful in the Hungarian context.
This charged set of aspirations about modernity came to be expressed neatly in the act of holding cell phones to the sky. The fact that such act can be read immediately as a political statement – and come up in subsequent protests, in Hungary, in Romania and in Slovakia – speaks to the fact that the discourses that connect modernity, freedom and the internet are incredibly powerful.
The events surrounding the internet tax protests have implications for activists and academics alike. For activists, the Hungarian internet tax protests should provide a case study to illustrate the power that digital technologies have taken up, not just as tools for organizing and communicating but also as political symbols. In particular, movements should think about the implicit assumptions that underlie the power of discourses about technology: assumptions about the centrality of the West, the primacy of market freedom and capitalism, the complicated legacy of the project of modernity and its connection to exploitation, colonialism, and so on.
During the internet tax protests, the discourse of “mundane modernity” was used in opposition to the threat of an illiberal order put forward by Viktor Orbán – and for that purpose it was extremely successful. However, there are two important caveats to consider. On the one hand, the discourse of “mundane modernity” might not be equally suitable for other causes. The implicit assumptions about technology, modernity and mundanity that make the internet a political symbol might not work in a different context or might be absolutely in contrast with the political beliefs and practices of a social movement. It is difficult to imagine that activists who are concerned with how social network sites provide an opportunity for corporations and governments to surveil movements could find much political purchase within the notion of “mundane modernity”. And this is exactly because of the limitations of these mainstream discourses linking technology and Western modernity. On the other hand, activists should also consider that, although useful for the short-lived internet tax protests, the discourse of mundane modernity was not enough to sustain the creation of a more stable and sustainable activist infrastructure – a full-fledged social movement – in opposition to Orbán’s government. While there are also specific political conditions that made it difficult for the Hungarian activists to sustain a long-term mass movement, we can also speculate that the discourses surrounding the internet that were used in the protests were not as suitable to build a broad platform centered on social justice.
For academics, the findings of this research project should point towards the need to study the relationship between technologies and protest in new ways; to go beyond researching how activists use digital technologies to also think about the ways in which technologies are deployed as political symbols and to what end. Research on the discourses that surround technologies is crucial if we want to understand the increasing power of technologies in our political moment.
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