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Hungary launches offensive against US tech giants

  • Hungarian Justice Minister said the government "will propose a law to the Parliament this spring" aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech.
27 Jan 2021

BUDAPEST: Hungary has launched a so-called "digital freedom" fight against US tech giants like Facebook and Twitter who it accuses of censorship and suspects could intervene in next year's parliamentary election.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who will seek reelection, was a staunch supporter of former US president Donald Trump whose social media accounts were shut after the Capitol invasion in Washington January 6.

"We all have to be prepared for such a situation," Gabor Kubatov, a vice-chairman of Orban's ruling party Fidesz, said referring to the Trump account bans.

On Tuesday, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said the government "will propose a law to the Parliament this spring" aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech.

"They could (arbitrarily) switch off bakers, hairdressers, pensioners, teachers, small businesses and state leaders as well," she said after a meeting of her ministry's "Digital Freedom Committee".

The combative Varga, 40, previously accused tech giants of "systematic abuses" including "shadow bans" that allegedly restrict accounts for political purposes.

"To reduce their reach, Facebook also limits the visibility of Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions," she said in a message on her own Facebook page last week, adding that firms could be sanctioned for "unfair commercial practices".

That post embedded tweets by the founder of Project Veritas, an activist group that claims to have infiltrated tech firms to back up charges of anti-conservative bias.

Varga's ministry told AFP by email that it "has been analysing the issue for almost a year now" with "numerous notifications reaching the ministry proving that the posts of certain users were limited without any notification or explanation".

With Fidesz neck-and-neck in polls against an opposition alliance ahead of the election scheduled in April 2022, Trump's account bans have spooked the party, says Agoston Mraz, an analyst with the Nezopont think-tank.

"There is a fear in Fidesz that without regulation something could happen in the run-up to the election, that if Facebook could ban Trump then why not Orban," Mraz told AFP.

And while the government tightly controls public media, and Orban allies run large swathes of the private media sector, social media remains largely untamed territory.

"Orban long ago realised how important media regulation is in politics, now it's social media's turn," said Mraz.

The Hungarian government is the latest to call for US internet giants to face more regulation.

Social media operators argued that Trump could have used his accounts to foment more unrest, but critics included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who termed the bans "problematic".

The EU has also proposed curbs for social media companies but new laws could take years to take effect, prompting Hungary and close ally Poland, both led by right-wing governments, to act sooner.

Earlier this month Warsaw drafted legislation to levy stiff fines on tech giants and limit their power to delete content or ban users, with sites only being allowed to do so if posts break Polish law.

The proposals provide for the creation of a "freedom of speech council" tasked with reviewing complaints by social media users whose accounts have been blocked or had content removed.

Facebook is Hungary's most popular site with user numbers exceeding 5.4 million in 2020, out of a population of 9.8 million.

The platform's three most active politicians were Orban, Varga, and Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, according to data from monitoring tool CrowdTangle analysed by the Telex news-site.

Orban, who has more than one million Facebook followers, depends on the platform to broadcast policy announcements and campaign videos, leading observers to doubt that severe Polish-style restrictions will be imposed.

"That would be like shooting yourself in the foot, and is also difficult in legal terms," remarked Patrik Szicherle, an analyst at the Budapest-based Political Capital think-tank.

Fidesz's spending on Facebook advertising also far exceeds that of opposition parties according to the site's data.

Social media "has taken over the leading role (from television) in political campaigns," Fidesz's Kubatov told the Inforadio station.

According to Szicherle, Budapest will mull legal options from "letting those banned from social media to turn to legal channels, to something with little practical effect but which still shows that the government is fighting against liberal tech giants".

"This war-like rhetoric, similar to the US alt-right's, fits with narratives often propagated by the government, that liberal conspiracies suppress conservative policies," he said.