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Why Facebook Blocked Australian News Sites

Australian news publishers complained that Facebook and Google were taking advantage of them by linking to their content. So the Australian government proposed a “link tax” in which Facebook and Google would have to pay Australian publishers for every link to them on those services. Facebook warned in September 2020 that if the Australian government moved forward with the link tax, it would stop allowing links to Australian publishers. The company has now done exactly that. So you would expect publishers to be happy that Facebook is no longer taking advantage of them by linking to their content.

Except they’re not happy. And even American politicians are lashing out at Facebook, accusing it of threatening Australia and democracy itself. Mike Masnick of TechDirt does his best to explain this confusing situation and the equally confusing reaction to it, including why people are also mad at Google for cutting a linking deal with News Corp (after threatening to pull out of Australia entirely), which was the point of the “tax” in the first place.

Many people are angry at Facebook for shutting off not just links to Australian news sites but also links to a number of others as well, including government websites and, temporarily, its own page. That could be due to a non-discrimination rule that requires Facebook and Google to treat all sites the same, or Facebook may simply have done a lousy job of blocking sites.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, opposes the link tax in the strongest terms, calling it a fundamental threat to the Web.

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Comments About Why Facebook Blocked Australian News Sites

Notable Replies

  1. Add this on to Apple’s Nutrition Labels, and I think Facebook and Google better fasten their seatbelts; they are in for a rocky ride.

  2. A great article, since it references what may be the oldest Internet meme. I remember reading USENET articles about why Australia doesn’t exist back before there was a web.

  3. I don’t generally defend Facebook but I think that are right on this one. I’ve been waiting for a company when faced with a questionable government regulation to just decide to forego the business in that country and see if the regulation survives any pushback that might come from citizens upset with the result.

  4. Funny, it’s the opposite for me. IMHO it’s high time democratically elected governments start showing some muscle and remind people like Zuck who sets the rules. If a private company cannot abide by those rules, they can take a hike. Australians will soon learn that they can do just fine without a privacy-flouting grifter middleman and get their news straight from the source. Good for them. :+1:

  5. Not sure that it’s better that Rupert Murdoch uses his clout with the ruling party to set the rules instead. This was not a regulation imposed because the people of Australia were clamoring for it, that’s for sure.

    So that’s what I was saying - I’d love to see Facebook just “take a hike” and refuse to work at all in Australia. Maybe Australia will be better off for it; maybe Australians will decide it’s better to live without Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp and Messenger, etc.) Maybe they won’t. As I hinted, Facebook doesn’t make it easy to defend them, but we’ve seen in the US what happens when media companies have too much power with our elected government and use that power to get the government to set rules and regulations that benefit themselves at the expense of what is better public policy - we get for-profit corporate news consolidation, often presented with political bias, without competition in many markets. Write a regulation that prevents Facebook, Google, et. al., from scraping or providing news snippets without links to the original material - maybe that makes sense. But when they actually provide links to the source material so users can click through to read the article - is that really harmful to the news sources?

  6. I’d say if Australians think Murdoch has too much clout they will be free to vote out the currently ruling party. As they have in the past. But the crucial point IMHO is they remain in the driver seat. Zuck doesn’t get to dictate terms. He might get away with that here in the States where he apparently can buy himself enough politicians on both sides of the aisle, but now in Australia he is being shown his limits. Hooray for their system.

    And as you say, he is actually not leaving. He decided rather than take a hike he is going to abide by the change in regulation. So let’s note he is being forced to do exactly what regulation intends. He’s chosen to stop linking to content he doesn’t want to pay for. Of course his gamble here is Australians won’t like having to go outside of Facebook for news and will therefore pressure their lawmakers to back down. He’s free to hope for that. Just as the Australian public is free to call him out for his blatant attempt at blackmail. But the crucial point here is that the people of Australia get to determine the set of rules used to govern their market instead of being blackmailed into doing something which goes against their own interests. Of course this is all just IMHO.

  7. I know, damn it! I was all poised to think Australia was acting sensibly, but the details are ridiculous.

    I do think that a lot of ad money is collected on the backs of editorial sites. There should be some method by which content that generates ad dollars on search engines and social networks would automatically flow some back to the creating sites (or people). This ain’t it!

  8. It’s not been clear what, exactly, the new Australian law is really about.

    If we’re talking about social media/search engines republishing content (e.g. including large quotes from an article) without permission, that’s a violation of copyright. I don’t know what kind of threshold Australia has for “fair use” (if any), but any content beyond that threshold should require permission to republish.

    If, on the other hand, we’re just talking about linking to content, that’s completely different. Readers don’t get to see the content without clicking through to the original publisher’s site, and the publisher can control access there (e.g. via paywalls) if they want.

    But I think that in either case, the idea of the government mandating payment is nuts. If there is copyright violation taking place, then the copyright holder can sue, and the law should be such that there is a reasonable chance of success. And if there isn’t any copyright violation taking place, then where are the damages?

    So far, this all seems like a bunch of mega-corporations trying to manipulate the Australian government in order to gain leverage over each other and the government is being played like a fiddle in this sparring match.

  9. Look at what’s happening in Europe for some guidance.

  10. That’s very much my take as well.

    When I read the Gizmodo article about how Facebook accidentally blocked its own page as well, I couldn’t resist commenting to some of my Aussie friends, “This is brilliant! How do we get Facebook to block all news and itself in the US too? :-)”

    But yeah, the link tax is seriously problematic without going full Ted Nelson and having bidirectional links and micropayments associated with transcluded data, a la Project Xanadu in Computer Lib/Dream Machines. It will never happen, so linking needs to remain free.

  11. That’s a really optimistic take on how the politics of this works.

  12. Murdoch is a piece of work. There was a fascinating profile of his empire—and the situation with his two sons, which has evolved since, with James distancing himself—in the New York Times Magazine about two years ago.

  13. I think this take from Steven Levy of Wired is pretty clear about what’s going on and how it’s the wrong way to attack the issue of Internet companies ‘stealing’ the economic underpinning of journalism.

  14. Displaying source material is the big issue here, not just the link. Facebook and Google use the info they gain from the clicks to more precisely target their advertising; it’s a huge revenue stream for them. Coming from a decades long background in publishing and media, I’m very aware of how expensive it is for news companies to fund newsrooms and field journalists and crews.

    Think about how many newspapers, magazine, newsletter, book, etc. companies have folded over the last few decades because they lost advertising and subscription revenue. I live in a large apartment building in New York City, and when I moved here just about every apartment on the floor got at least one newspaper delivered to their door every day. Now my husband and I just get the New York Times. Hardly anyone in the building gets a newspaper delivered at all.

    I think that because Google just delivers a link to a particular search; it doesn’t display text or comments about the link displayed in searches, they are more amenable to cutting a deal with publishers. Facebook makes a lot of money placing ads that are targeted to content appears on particular pages,

  15. And Rupert was even more active in distancing himself from James.

  16. For what it’s worth, the article is behind a firewall. (I have News+ so was able to read it.)

    Like I said - then regulate how much of a snippet can show.

    (I just looked at my FB feed. It was hard to find a news link, but the two I found were just small snippets or just the headline and a photo from the article with links to open the full article, yes, redirected through a FB short link, but eventually at the source. I know that Twitter links are the same.)

    Think about how many farriers and blacksmiths folded after automobiles became popular. I still get a daily newspaper, and read it every day cover to cover, but I get why they are not so popular anymore - it’s literally yesterday’s news. Also I believe that Craigslist and (and other online job listing sites) have quite a bit to do with the loss of newspaper ad revenue. Or, I should say that the loss of ad revenue and circulation is a lot more complicated than saying that it was caused by Google search and Facebook and Twitter link snippets (or the rise of radio news and tv news in the early to mid 20th century.)

  17. This is not about the entire Internet. Any one of us is free to still publish all the links we want in Australia, just as any Australian citizen is free to publish all the links they want to my pages.

    This is about huge quasi-monopoly corporations like FB or Google that have grown fat off of the work of others and are using that heft to spread and dominate. These guys are now being ordered (in Australia) to abide by different rules than the rest and that’s quite OK because they have in their respective markets become a de facto monopoly. There are essentially no more market forces left to reign them in. Now who’s fault that is is an entirely different story, but fact is, FB customers cannot vote with their feet. It’s essentially FB or nothing. So now FB gets special treatment. That doesn’t affect “the internet” or regular Joes like you and me, it primarily affects FB’s outlook and bottom line. And I sure won’t be losing any sleep over that.

  18. Horses didn’t get replaced by GlobalAutomobileMonopoly Inc., they got replaced by many dozens of competing car and train companies. I’m quite confident if FB tomorrow were to self-dissolve into 10 separate competing companies all this regulation would be handily removed.

  19. By positioning themselves as platforms, not publishers, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others are profiting greatly from information displayed on their sites that have been produced and paid for by publishers. Although there are far, far fewer blacksmiths and farriers than there once were, I think a huge % of those that remain are not working for free. Craig’s List and Monster did decimate classified dealer and used car and employment related ads, but they have not profited from unauthorized and uncompensated postings of editorial and images produced and paid for by publishers.

  20. I’m sorry, I’m confused. Are you talking about Facebook or Rupert Murdoch?

  21. Something I just remembered…Murdoch bought My Space in 2005 for $580,000,000 because it was the world’s largest and most profitable social media company. At that time rumors were flying that he was going to develop TV shows, and eventually channels like MTV and Lifetime based on My Space content. He sold it five years later for just $35,000,000. The reason…Facebook.

  22. You write, “but [the] fact is, FB customers cannot vote with their feet. It’s essentially FB or nothing.” But I have never had a FB account and I have never had any trouble getting news on the Internet. Every website I go to wants to push notifications to me whether I am a paying subscriber or not. Friends send me text messages or emails with links to news they think I want to know about. Newsmakers and other interested parties tweet about stuff they think their followers might want to know about. I don’t feel like I have missed anything because I refuse to get a FB account. In short, if the trade-off is FB or “nothing,” “nothing” works great, and it’s possible to vote for “nothing” with your feet.

  23. To the extent that people just walk away from Facebook, issues with that company are reduced. I’ve been very happy to have cut my ties years ago.

  24. I agree entirely with that, @fritz. I’ve never been on FB my entire life. No need to convince me that works.

    But here that is beside the point since people like us are not in that market in the first place.

    Those who are, i.e. those who desire to be on some kind of “social network” basically get to choose between FB and FB. In that market FB has a de facto monopoly, worse than MS on the desktop in the 90s. And as I argued then, I argue now: once a company is in such a position it has to be subjected to stringent regulation and it has to be treated different from private companies in other markets where they’re exposed to competition and true market forces.

  25. Or Twitter or Youtube or Tiktok or WhatsApp or WeChat or LinkedIn or Reddit or Pinterest or…

    Dominant position? Yes. Monopoly? No.

  26. For what it’s worth:

    @MrKRudd: After a full day’s Senate hearings where the Murdoch media denied they were a monopoly, what do his tabloids deliver today in 8 different cities? The same cookie-cutter article published in 8 different papers! They really take us for fools. #MurdochRoyalCommission

  27. Syndicating print and broadcast news has been a fact of life for well over a century, ever since Morse code and teletypes were invented. From the largest to the smallest, the vast majority newspapers depend on syndicates for national, global, human interest, opinion and how to coverage and columns. They cannot afford to do otherwise. That they only found one article in a big bunch of newspapers that run multiple pages that include lots of news, reviews and opinion coverage is nothing indicating anything resembling monopolistic practices.

    Murdoch just recently shut down his Australian external print syndicate; he sold off his US print syndicate a few years ago. The Murdoch papers, like other publishing groups, are syndicating internally. But like other news and broadcast companies, New York Times, Washington Post, Hearst, Tribune publications, McClasky, and others are external as well as internal syndicators. McClasky and others all syndicate content across their properties as well as to other publishers. Every time you see a byline for “wire services” like Assciated Press (AP) or Reuters, you are reading syndicated content.

    Here’s a link to the NYT’s syndicated services:

    There are many older movies about newspaper journalism that include scenes with teletypes and tickers, including The Front Page and All The President’s Men. And for anyone interested, here’s an excellent summary about a newspaper that always has always been the first on board with using new wireless technologies, The New York Times, got the first accurate scoop on the sinking of The Titanic:

  28. There are other news publishers that publish and broadcast news in multiple markets in Australia, including the Canadian owned Globe And Mail.

    Nine Media is another big one; they bought Fairfax a few years ago:

  29. I live in Australia and haven’t noticed any change to my browsing news - but then I have never used Facebook for this purpose :grinning:
    It does seem to me that it is mostly a political exercise of the Australian government being seen to be standing up to bullying tactics, despite the regulation being requested, apparently, by the Murdoch press.
    It will be interesting to see where I stand as I have created dozens of non-commercial pages over 24 years with links to interesting news items on astronomy, global warming and other topics. As far as I can tell the sites are happy for me to link to them and I don’t earn click income of course.
    Incidentally the Facebook blunder in Australia also took out community safety Facebook pages such as bushfire warnings. The press here had a field day with that one!

  30. I just thought about what I have always thought were two of the most iconic and moving news photos of all time, the G.l.s raising the US flag on Iwo Jima, and three year old John F. Kennedy Jr saluting his father’s coffin during the funeral parade. They were both photographed for wire services. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been circulated in as many news media as they were, and certainly not have received as much attention:

    (There’s an exceptionally interesting back story about how the Photo Editor went ballistic and chewed the photographer out about not going to Arlington cemetery to get more photos before he returned to base.)

    And something else that’s heavily syndicated…cartoons. Would the Peanuts gang, Mickey Mouse or Superman have remained popular and viable for as long as they have been if it were not for syndication and licensing? Even Apple inked a big syndication deal with Peanuts.

  31. I get none of my news from FB. But when it comes to maintaining a dialog with far-flung family and friends, it truly is FB or nothing.

  32. Twitter: Limited number of characters in messages, no groups, not designed for sharing still photos to a small group, hard to navigate.
    YouTube: Videos, not stills. Owned by Google.
    TikTok: Short Videos that disappear
    WhatsApp: Created to avoid using Cellular Voice, since in most countries you pay by the minute. But, it is now owned by Facebook, so doesn’t count as a competitor to FB
    WeChat: Don’t know much about it, I have one Chinese friend that uses it. Most content in is Chinese.
    SnapChat: Mostly videos that disappear after the user has seen them
    LinkedIn: Totally focused on work life, business, job hunting, sales. Owned by Microsoft.
    Reddit: Actually, pretty interesting. I find stuff on Rediit that I won’f find else where. Like how to force Google Voice on an iPhone to stay off cellular voice networks. (Answer: Write some automation that turns on Airplane mode and turns off all the cellular radios anytime you are using Google Voice.)
    Pinterest: Again, totally different than FB. It is subject based rather than person based. Has some good stuff for hobbies like cooking, travel, photography, etc.
    You forgot Instagram, but it is owned by Facebook anyway, so doesn’t count.

    My point is none of these “Social Media” sites does what FB does, as easily as FB does it, plus most people want or need to be on the same network as their friends and contracts. So if I hate FB and go WeChat instead, I’m going to be pretty lonely since only one of my friends is on that platform.

    In addition to the social media sites, there is the whole hidden side of the advertising networks, where companies and agencies can target individual users across multiple web sites. Google owns the largest one with most of the revenue. I think it was called Double Click, but I am cnot positive. I read an interesting article about how the ad networks are starving the publications for ad revenue. If I was an advertiser and wanted to reach skiers for example, in the past I’d buy ads on sites dedicated to winter sports. But I would have difficulty targeting my skier with ads for flights to ski resorts or winter photography. Google’s ad network knows more about a user than the user knows about himself or herself. By buying ads on Google’s Ad Network, the advertiser reaches the target across multiple websites and subject matter. I think FB has its own ad network.

    I would not choose the word “dominant” to describe FB. There is no viable alternative which makes FB a de-facto monopoly with way too much power. the barriers to entry for new competitors are enormous. Most people today are getting their news from Social Media and not necessarily from journalistic sites, streaming video, or other sources. So what FB choose to put on their users feed is vitally important to the future of society. And too much of what Zuckerberg permits is not even opinion, but outright non-factual, lies.

    I don’t have a proposed solution. Do we make Facebook and Twitter publishers who are responsible for the content their users publish on their sites? Do we increase censorship and ban the liars, racists, fascists, and other spreaders of material many people find offensive? I do think the concentration of control and power enjoyed by the largest technology companies probably isn’t healthy to society. I certainly think it is time for an informed Congress to at least start getting educated about how this industry works.

    Capitalism works best when there is real competition, which benefits both consumers and Entrepreneurs.

  33. I didn’t forget Instagram – I didn’t put it in because, as you note, it’s owned by Facebook.

    And yes, all social media sites have various limitations and different approaches – but they exist and just because you decide that Facebook is the best site for you is not the same thing as it being a monopoly.

    There’s no viable alternative for you. That’s not the same thing as being a monopoly in the larger world.

  34. My adult children (and most of their adult cousins) hardly ever use Facebook. I think it’s been over a year since either one has posted anything. My daughter occasionally posts photos or stories on Instagram, but it’s pretty rare (my son doesn’t even use IG.) Not universal, but I believe that most of that crowd just uses group and one-to-one messaging to stay in touch with each other and with the rest of us. It’s mostly only our generation (and their grandparents) who use it now. I hardly ever use it anymore myself. Again, I am far more likely to contact people with Messages/SMS or email. Or call them.

    The news today is that Facebook has received assurances from the Australian government that these laws will not put them into a forced arbitration with random news organizations just because a Facebook user has posted a link to an article, so Facebook is now allowing links to Australian news sites again, and will also show news links to Australian users. So it looks like this one has been resolved for now.

  35. I have been among those who have opposed a link tax on Google and Facebook. However, a comment on an article that appeared yesterday on Ars Technica has changed my view. The top comment currently in the ‘insightful view’ (this may change–I’m referencing a comment made at 2:56 PM (PST?) by Engineer Scotty). He points out that links from Google and Facebook are NOT direct links to webpages but rather link back to Gooogle or Facebook, which then process the encoded information to present the page that you have selected. He then presents an example.

    I have done gone through a similar process, doing a search for a page in Google and DuckDuckGo and examining the raw link in a text editor. DDG presents a direct link to the page while Google presents a link internal to Google. I’ve also checked a link to an article on my Facebook Newsfeed and seen the same result where the link goes back to Facebook.

    So it appears that Google and Facebook may be doing something more than just serving up the result you requested.

  36. [Note: Email processing may mangle this note–view on]

    For example, here are the results from a search by me for ‘Alan Forkosh’ in DuckDuckGo, Google, and Bing, respectively from Safari. The first line is how the link appears while the following text is the actual HTML with the 'HTTPS" header removed (so that the link is not actually resolved).

    DuckDuckGo—-First Entry for Alan Forkosh home | | Alan Forkosh

    Google–First Entry for Alan Forkosh home | | Alan

    Bing—First Entry for Alan Forkosh home | | Alan Forkosh

  37. They are collecting analytics - to maintain a database of which links you click through. Then they redirect that link to the original URL so you can actually see the page. They are not republishing the remote content under their own URLs, if that is what concerns you.

    Google also does redirection for links in GMail messages (at least when clicked through the web interface). I’ve found that most web-mail services do this. Some are almost certainly tracking you. Some are just collecting analytics. Some pass the URLs through malware detectors as part of their security process. And I’m sure there are other reasons I haven’t thought of yet.

    Regarding Google, you can see the history they collect by visiting (when logged in to your Google account, of course). From there you can view and erase the history they’ve collected. You can also configure your account to have it not track this information or have it auto-delete information after 3, 18 or 36 months.

    Google says your browsing, location and YouTube history is used to improve your use of their services, by auto-suggesting links and content related to your interests. I assume they’re also using some of the data in the link to track who you share the link with in order to identify your friends and see how far a link propagates as people forward it to each other.

    I don’t know what Facebook does with the data they collect. They appear to be far more secretive than Google and they’ve been caught lying to the public on many occasions, so I tend to assume the worst from them. I can almost guarantee that they’re using it build up a friends-of-friends database as they track link propagation, since that’s a core facet of their business model.

  38. They sure are tracking, and Google Analytics also tracks online and offline behavior:

    “The Google Analytics Measurement Protocol allows developers to make HTTP requests to send raw user interaction data directly to Google Analytics servers. This allows developers to measure how users interact with their business from almost any environment. Developers can then use the Measurement Protocol to:

    • Measure user activity in new environments.
    • Tie online to offline behavior.
    • Send data from both the client and server.”

    Google also makes it super easy for developers to create their own trackable links:

  39. It looks like Facebook is taking a step in the right direction:

    However, I can’t help but think that this is just a Band Aid over a gaping wound to put off any threats of regulations like Australia’s new laws. Facebook hasn’t said if they will provide more money when the $1 billion runs out before the time limit, how the money will be distributed, for what and to whom. Given the size and global reach of Facebook’s membership, the stash of cash might not last very long.

  40. Ken

    I find the whole situation confusing. If a newspaper doesn’t want to have their content not appear in a link they can paywall it. This is what the Murdoch press does for their publications in Australia. It is rather annoying that whenever Google returns a link to one of their publications, then clicking on the link returns a page suggesting a subscription. If they are upset by Google listing them in search results that can be turned off within a website. I suspect that most publications have actually gone to some effort to make sure they are returned in a Google search, for example, turning off paywalls.

  41. I’m wondering if some of this is due to the fact that some news sites don’t know how to properly implement a paywall.

    Many sites I’ve visited load the entire article and then (via a script of some kind) cover it with a paywall popup. Which means you can easily circumvent it by disabling scripting, blocking the specific script, halting the page-load before the script runs or (in many cases) opening it in a browser’s “Reader” view.

    On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to implement a system that displays the paywall and does not make any attempt to load the page content (or redirect to it) until after login credentials are provided. But sites like this aren’t all that common, for some reason.

    In other words, are media outlets trying to use the legal system to compensate for their own technical incompetence?

  42. Ken

    It is not difficult and all the newspapers would know the methods. What many of them do is to set a maximum number of views per month and then paywall, with the hope that some viewers will subscribe. The problem is that those systems are easy to cheat and many people never subscribe. Apparently the papers do get a reasonable number of subscribers this way. Murdoch has gone for the fully paywall system, which possibly means fewer convert to subscribers. So he wants a system where Google/Facebook pay and then anyone who clicks on a link from those sites gets to see the content. So win for Murdoch and other newspapers and loss to Facebook/Google, although they will have happier customers because they will be able to read articles.

  43. This got me thinking about paywalls and crawlers, and why Apple News was not included in the Australian hoopla. Google and Facebook crawl anything, everything and anywhere on the web to gather content for their news services; though they do give publishers the ability to register to submit content. Apple News and News+ only work with partners that have been carefully chosen by their editorial board. Every article that appears on the site is carefully vetted and selected by a group of editors. Publications can submit articles and videos, and they have the option of granting News permission to crawl their sites for content; not all partners agree to be crawled.

    Apple has always shared revenue with its partners; publishers get 100% of ad revenue they sell, 70% of ads that Apple sells, as well as the standard 30/15% cut for subscriptions. Google and Facebook just inked deals with Australia because of the threatened legislation; the compensation negotiated has not been disclosed.

    Content in Google and Facebook’s News is heavily powered by artificial intelligence. Though they do allow publishers to submit content, from what I’ve heard (I’m not a Facebook member or a Google news reader), neither service is carefully vetted like Apple News is; conspiracy theories, falsehoods and objectionable content abounds. Both are very heavily on artificial intelligence to select and serve content. Both are relentless crawlers of the web to gather news to serve to members. Tracking members and serving targeted ads on all their properties is how they make money:

    All the information Facebook and Google gather from their news services goes into the humongous tracking databases Google and Facebook have accumulated, which contribute significantly to their bottom lines. Apple News is, at the very best, probably marginally profitable; it exists primarily to help Apple sell its expensive hardware.

  44. In the US, Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, The New York Post and more. Murdoch is also doing very well with Apple News with all three. The New York Times dropped out of Apple News about a year ago, and Murdock is happily and actively in the loop:

  45. Now that we have seen the deal that Facebook negotiated with the Australian Government it is obvious that there are many get-out clauses for Facebook.

  46. From an Australian perspective, next battle is to get American tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple to pay company tax due on their earnings made in Australia. I think Microsoft is the only exception that pays its dues.

  47. Great that works for your crowd. Wouldn’t work for mine, many of whom don’t know each other and have little in common, including, in a couple of instances, the English language.

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