More than 10,000 people marched in Budapest on Sunday to demand Prime Minister Viktor Orban scrap a proposed tax on Internet usage that critics say is only the country's latest anti-democratic measure.
Outside the economy ministry, the crowd held up brightly lit phones and signs with slogans such as "Free Wifi! Free Internet! Free Hungary!" The proposed law would make Hungary's seven million Internet users pay a tax of about $0.60 per gigabyte — capped at $3 a month.
"It is a human right to have Internet. This tax is the most stupid thing. Other countries, like Estonia, they give Internet for free to everyone. Here in Hungary, you will pay tax on every gigabyte, a certain percentage will turn into an income for the state,” computer programmer Gabor Arlequin told Al Jazeera.
Announcing the tax last Tuesday, Economy Minister Mihaly Varga said it would help shore up the 2015 budget of one of the EU's most indebted nations. One leading telecom company said the tax could cost the sector — and the people of Hungary — more than $400 million dollars a year.
Hungary’s prime minister has been accused of flirting with authoritarianism, and organizers told Agence France-Presse news agency that they believed the tax was aimed at restricting government critics who rely on online media. Others are concerned it will hurt small businesses and make it harder for people, particularly in poor areas, to access information and educational material.
"The government could not completely stop the freedom of expression with the media law in 2010," protester Judith Nagykorsa said, referring to a law Human Rights Watch said undermined media freedom. "This is why they try to tax Internet this time. So they will make the Internet more expensive for people when 4 million people already live under the poverty line. These people will find it's very difficult to pay the tax even if it's two euros [$2.50]."
The tax has also triggered alarm in Brussels. Neelie Kroes, the EU's digital chief, tweeted that it was "a shame for users and a shame for the Hungarian government."
Prime Minister Orban's Fidesz party later proposed capping the monthly payment at $3 for consumers and $20 for businesses, but the move has failed to calm anger.
At Sunday’s protest, demonstrators chanted "Orban, get lost!" as they marched down the main boulevard of the capital.
"This is a good occasion for a lot of people to come here to show they are unhappy with the government's tax and economic policies. This was only the icing on the cake. But it's interesting that this topic brought so many people together," protester Attila Sos said.
Re-elected with a second consecutive two-thirds majority in April, Orban, 51, has recently faced pressure from the United States, which issued entry bans on several government officials over suspected corruption.
The top U.S. diplomat in Budapest warned Friday that "negative trends" such as a weakening of the rule of law and intimidation of civil society had "rapidly taken hold" in Hungary. The protest organizers have given the government 48 hours to withdraw the tax legislation and have threatened more protests on Tuesday if it does not happen.
Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse. Tarek Bazley contributed to this report.