RS: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, and you’re listening to Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Jonathan Taplin, the Director Emeritus of the USC Annenberg’s Innovation Lab at USC. He is the author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Previously had a career as a film producer as well as a tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band. There are a lot of other things you did in terms of monopoly capitalism; we’ll discuss that. But welcome, Jonathan.

JT: Good to be here, Bob.

RS: And let me say, your book is fascinating, because you dare—you dare to challenge the great Internet revolution. You say, basically, you’re saying it sucks. You’re saying it’s monopoly capitalism, it’s destructive of the human spirit, it’s uncontrollable, right? And it’s driven by a libertarian ideology which you keep getting back to, which you present as kind of a mean-spirited, aggressive, corrupt, hypocritical ideology.

JT: The original idea of the Internet in the sixties, when it was conceived by people like Tim Berners-Lee and—they were mostly academics, right. And they had this very idealistic idea that we need to decentralize the media system, and you and I both recall very clearly that in the late sixties there were three TV networks and maybe one newspaper in any given city, and that was it. So the whole idea of having a very decentralized system, which the Internet was originally, was a great idea. But in the late eighties and early nineties, some people like Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, came to understand that the Internet could be a winner-takes-all business. Because the notion of scale—that you could become the dominant search engine, the dominant ecommerce company, or the eventually dominant social media company—was really possible. And that you wouldn’t need a second search engine; you wouldn’t need a second ecommerce company. There would be no room for that. And so the winner, because of scale economics and what we call the network effect, could take everything. And that’s exactly what happened. If you look at what were the largest companies in America 10 years ago, they were ExxonMobil, Citibank, General Electric, Shell. And today, the largest companies in the world are Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft. So, I mean, it’s been an astonishingly fast transformation of the whole nature of capitalism. And quite frankly, I don’t think they have much social responsibility, and we can talk a lot more about them when we talk about fake news and all that stuff. But that’s the basis of it.

RS: OK. So let me first of all say what I agree with in your book. Ah, I think—first of all, let me say, the Internet was decentralized because it was built by the Pentagon. [Laughs]

JT: Right.

RS: This is not some weird conspiracy theory, it was done in the expectation there might be an all-out nuclear war and therefore you had to have survivability of your systems, and in this macabre world that they were talking about, decentralization was the name of the game. And then the Internet really grew out of that. And then the other point to be made is that we always had this drive to monopoly capitalism. After all, Adam Smith’s world—which is the basis, kind of, of libertarian, the kind of libertarian ideology that I personally like—is one in which no one can control anything; there is an invisible hand, and it’s a real free market. And that’s good. And then government can be much more limited, and not have to intervene. But we learn, with the history of industrial capitalism, that concentration was the order of the day, and didn’t start with Google and Apple—I mean, OK. And they all wanted to do what Peter Thiel, whom you’re talking about as sort of a main ideologue that you describe in your book, and he’s the guy who gained prominence by being the first gay person to ever speak publicly on the stage at a republican convention. But he also was a supporter of Trump, and now has some kind of position, not very prominent, in the Trump administration. And he came out of PayPal, he did Palantir, he’s done other things, and so forth. But the ideology that he spelled out is really not very different than the old monopoly capitalists. It’s just they’re able to get away with it.

JT: Yeah, I mean, he says very clearly: Competition is for losers. And, you know, if you want to make a lot of money in America today, you need to build a monopoly. And he also says, you know, monopolies lie to protect themselves. They pretend, you know—Google has this economist named Hal Varian who they trot out every once in a while. And Varian says, somewhere in a basement, somewhere in America, are the people who are going to disrupt Google and take all their market. And I think that’s nonsense. You know, I don’t think if I came to you and said, hey, give me all the money you’ve got to invest and let’s do a startup to take on Google in search advertising—you’d say, are you crazy? You would throw me out of the room. And I don’t think there’s anybody who has a market solution to the monopolies that these three companies put forth.

RS: The guy that, we should mention, you really go after is Peter Thiel. And I just wanted to ask you a personal question. Peter Thiel came to speak at USC. Were you there, or did you go to hear him?

JT: I was not there.

RS: OK, well then—

JT: I heard that you were there and you asked him a very embarrassing question about Palantir, I think, right.

RS: Yes. I asked him a question that I thought—I didn’t mean to embarrass him, because that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise. And I actually like libertarians when they’re consistent and when they believe in small scale. I had Matt Welsh, who was the editor of Reason magazine, on one of these podcasts; I have great respect for him. So my problem is not with the libertarian philosophy; it’s with the contradiction of people who talk a good game about it but don’t realize. And that’s the question I raised with Peter Thiel at USC. I said, my goodness, you’re supposed to be anti-government; you’re supposed to believe in the private individual, the private sector, and then after PayPal you started a company called Palantir—

JT: Financed by the CIA’s venture capital operation.

RS: —yeah, well, in part financed by In-Q-Tel, which was what the CIA was doing—I think in clear violation of their charter, getting involved in Silicon Valley. But the CIA was your only customer for three years, and then you get access to all of our private data and so forth, and you then develop Palantir. And now Palantir sifts through the data of the Los Angeles Police Department, police departments all over the place, all the intelligence agencies and everything else. What kind of libertarian is that? And you know, he was sort of disingenuous in response; there’s something on YouTube where you can watch it. And he said well, you know, that’s an interesting question. But it’s a bigger question. The fact is, these guys are kind of—they’re not libertarians, they’re crony capitalists.

JT: Right. They’re totally crony capitalists. I mean, you think about the other contradictions of Thiel. So here’s a guy who believes totally in free speech, except when it comes to Gawker. And Gawker says something that outs him, even though everybody in San Francisco knew he was gay, and he spends eight years trying to figure out how to bring Gawker down, and he successfully does it. So I mean, free speech except when it bothers him. And you know, he also interestingly enough supported Mark Zuckerberg’s notion that nobody cares about privacy anymore. Well, if nobody cares about privacy, why was he so worried about his own personal privacy? So I mean, I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy built into everything these people do. So three weeks ago, the EU sued Google for $2.7 billion. And basically, the case was simple. It was that Google guided people who were on their search engine towards Google’s services, like travel, what’s the best restaurant, all the other things, to go away from services like Yelp or others, right? And that very same case—all the evidence, everything—had been raised by the staff of the FTC three years ago. They’d come to the conclusion that Google had to be stopped, and it was an antitrust violation. And they were all ready to do something, and Obama stopped it. I mean, literally, Eric Schmidt met with Obama 22 times between the time that the staff had come to the conclusion that Google was monopolous, and the administration said, oh nevermind, forget about it. So the exact same facts, everything goes to the EU, and they come to the right conclusion, was they were monopolists. So what’s the difference? In the EU, there’s not a campaign finance system that is all dependent on billionaire money. Right? They use publicly financed elections, basically. But here we have Citizens United. And so the Democratic Party is completely subservient to Silicon Valley, because they need their money and don’t want to piss off Eric Schmidt and Google. And it’s not a republican or a democratic thing; it’s across the aisle.

RS: Yeah, and Eric Schmidt was a big backer of Hillary Clinton.

JT: Right. But now, he’s sucking up to Donald Trump in a way you cannot believe.

RS: I understand, but you know, my job here is also to provide a, play devil’s advocate, if you like.

JT: Sure.

RS: And I do think it’s a legitimate role. And one thing that hit me, you know, reading your book is that where are the good guys? And it can’t be all Citizens United and the Koch Brothers and these nasty libertarians, because Eric Schmidt talks a great liberal-democratic game also. And he was prominent, you know, as I said, at the democratic convention. And in your book, I learned that the real problem here is that Bill Clinton gave a great gift to these new monopolists. Because in one sense, readers should understand, we’ve always had—you can go read the classical economists; they always were against monopolies. It wasn’t just Adam Smith; Ricardo, all of them, OK. And it was always understood, capitalism could not survive if it could control politics, if there was no voice of dissent of small business and other people, regular people and so forth; it would be, they would go crazy, they’d eat everybody and destroy the system. And so we had had anti-trust; we’ve had laws about getting too big, we’ve had laws about restraint of trade, right? And we broke up the telephone companies, we broke up the steel, we broke up oil and so forth. You know, republicans and democrats have understood that what your book points out—and the book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy—you know, what you’re saying is actually the Internet companies have created, through effective PR, manipulation and, yes, the spending of money, a whole new world for themselves where they’re just good guys having fun, doing no harm, and somehow they’ve gotten government, or bought government, to go along with this canard, you know.

JT: Right. “Don’t be evil.” [Laughs]

RS: Don’t be evil, and the fact is, as you point out, they are treated differently than other corporations, right? Yes. And they’re treated differently, and you can tell us about the act that Bill Clinton signed off on, but also the act that Christopher Cox and [Ron] Wyden, the very liberal senator from Oregon who I respect enormously, but they coauthored an act. And basically what this has done, a gift–and Obama, as you say, supported it–said hey, these new high-tech companies, they’re different. And we have to work with them, why? Because they give us money or whatever, but they’re different. They’re not! They want what you would call renter’s income—they want that extra edge.

JT: Right. The two ones you’re talking about, one is called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gave them what’s called a safe harbor. So no musician, for instance, can sue YouTube for putting their content on YouTube against their will. Just, you can’t do it. The other one was called the Internet Freedom from Tax Act, which Wyden and Cox put forward, which basically gave Jeff Bezos a free pass. So he could sell books to anybody without any taxes and your local bookstore had to pay eight percent sales tax. So they could never compete with Amazon. And basically, what happened? Four thousand bookstores went out of business during the course of from when Amazon started. So it was not a level playing field. And they made sure that they got special considerations, and Thiel’s notions were simple: If we could have a business without regulation, without taxes, and without competition, and no copyright—boy, we could do really well. In the early nineties, he said the Internet companies will become the dominant force in American society. He said that in the early nineties. And it turned out to be true!

RS: [omission] You have the little bookstores, not just little, but independent bookstores driven out of business because of the monopoly power. But the real passion, as I said before, in this book concerns the music industry and the creative industry. You keep getting back to that, and it provides a very interesting counterpoint in your book, because you remind us these are people; you know, the drummer who at 70 years old—

JT: Levon Helm.

RS: —yeah, has to go back on the road, and so forth. And what’s interesting about it—we’re doing this from KCRW, a station that specializes in music. And basically you’re saying this industry got destroyed, and now it’s only in touring, it’s not any of the revenue from the industry. And you actually, you know—digital is a dirty word in your book, because it can be so easily copied and stolen. And I remember, I brought into my classes at USC, I very often bring in Marilyn Bergman. And Marilyn and Alan Bergman, great songwriters, did a lot of the great music that Barbra Streisand sings, and so forth. And she would have fights with my students and just denounce them—you steal our music! [Laughs] And so forth. And this is an argument—I’m sure, because you’ve been a professor and teacher as well as a producer in the music industry—it is very difficult to get across to young people today, who are kind of used to stealing.

JT: The music business that I grew up with in the late sixties, early seventies was a business in which you could be what I call a middle-class musician. So The Band was not, like, the Rolling Stones or Cream; it was, they were not making millions off of records. But they could sell 300,000 albums and make a very good living. So that continued for a long time. And in 2000, Napster happened, the first pirate music service. And it just so happened that same year Levon Helm got throat cancer. And Napster just—

RS: Of The Band.

JT: Of The Band. The drummer and lead singer. And Napster just basically cut off his royalty income completely. There was no more, nobody needed to go buy old records. And that was it. And he basically died in poverty. And yet you could go on YouTube and there would be songs from The Band that would have three million, four million streams. So that just didn’t make any sense to me. And so the problem now is, forget piracy; forget Pirate Bay, all that. Just YouTube—YouTube is a situation where no musician can set a fair price for their music. What YouTube says to record companies and musicians is, your music is going to be on our service whether you like it or not, and we have this safe harbor to keep you from suing us to get it off. And so the only decision you’re going to make is, you’re going to take a little bit of our money for advertising on your tunes, or not take any of it. And so if you had a song on iTunes that got a million downloads, you could make $900,000. If you had a million streams on YouTube, you’d make $900. That won’t even pay the rent in Santa Monica for a month, you know? And that’s a million; that’s a big hit. So it just doesn’t make any sense to me. And so we need to get these things straightened out. A musician has the ability to take down something and make it stay down. Just in the same way that newspapers have to have a better deal from Facebook.

RS: I’m talking to Jonathan Taplin, who has in addition to being a professor at USC, now I guess you’re emeritus means you’re retired to go make more money. We’ve always had fake news. OK? We’ve always had fake news; the war in Vietnam was fake news, the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was fake news; living in a segregated society where black people couldn’t play baseball in the majors, and not writing about it, was fake news. So we’ve always had these problems. What happened here—and you have, the key word is deregulation, and respect; because it wasn’t just the Internet companies. They came along at this time. But the same president, Bill Clinton, who was for deregulating the communications industry and the Internet, also deregulated the banks. And the banks had phenomenal growth during this period. And so really, it goes to the question of where is power in this society. And anybody who’s going to make that money, they’re going to have this power. And the party labels really aren’t terrifically important.

JT: Look, I totally agree. I mean, the more I research this, the more I realize that both sides of the aisle—republicans and democrats—were equally guilty of falling down on the job. And look, you and I have more agreement than you think about the basic notions of libertarianism. The problem that I have is the classic Milton Friedman idea, which was that all regulation, all government regulation is bad and harmful, is where we get into a problem. That’s where we ended up letting the banks do whatever they want to do, and that’s where we’re ending up letting Google and Facebook do whatever they want to do. And the problem is, if you take that point of view—which Peter Thiele does—you’re inevitably going to get into a situation where you say, the only solution to this is some market solution. Because you put the market as this grand god, and somehow someone will come in and compete Google out of business. Well, it’s not going to happen. I’ll be honest with you. There’s a little company down in Venice called Snapchat. Not so little, but it has 200 million users. So Snapchat thought, we can take on Facebook and we can do a much cooler thing. And for a little while, a lot of teenagers really thought it was cool, ‘cause you could draw on pictures, and it had all these features that Facebook didn’t have. So Facebook goes and offers them $3 billion to buy them. And the kids in Venice said, no, we want to stay independent. And so Facebook said, OK, you want it? And so what did Facebook do? They go and rip off every feature of Snapchat—it was called Snapchat Stories; now it’s Facebook Stories. Or Instagram Stories. Or Whatsapp Stories. And they basically killed them. Their stock was at $28 a share; today their stock is at $14 a share. Basically, advertisers are fleeing them, because they basically say, Facebook can do everything that Snapchat can do, only it has two billion subscribers as opposed to 200 million subscribers. Where are we going to put our money? Into Facebook.

RS: Right.

JT: At this point, Facebook and Google have 90 percent of the Internet advertising business. Ninety—between those two companies and their subsidiaries, YouTube and Instagram—they basically control 90 percent of all digital advertising.

RS: Right, and the reason they control it—and we should get to a very important point in your book, Move Fast and Break Things—and one of the things they broke were traditional newspapers, as sort of the backbone of American democracy. And the way they were able to do that is by invading privacy. That’s something your book really lays out very clearly. The reason Google and Facebook get 90 percent of that Internet advertising is they no longer, they can short circuit the connection between an advertiser and The New York Times or the LA Times. And they can tell an advertiser, we can give you New York Times readers, OK, and we can give it to you—what age do you want? And what income? And what—

JT: And what bourbon do you want them to drink, and what car do they want, are they driving, and everything.

RS: And this very, this very thing that impresses people is they’re going through the Internet and say, hey! I was thinking about getting an electric car, and look, I got nine ads here for an electric car or an electric razor or anything else. OK. So the key to the success of Facebook and Google is an invasion of privacy.

JT: Totally.

RS: OK. Now, two things have to be said about that, and your book deals with both of them. One is, you could say, OK, as long as it’s in the private sector, it’s then between you and them. And other people can respond. So for example, in the case of China, Google doesn’t operate there so far. And the reason is that the Chinese government, first of all, [Laughs] is a totalitarian government and they can say you’re not going to operate. But also they can convince the Chinese people not to go crazy over this—because they can do [workarounds] and get it, but they’re going to say hey, you can give your privacy to a Chinese-owned company, OK, and they speak your language and so forth. And this has happened, there are actually, three of the top Internet companies are Chinese companies. And so the pressure on Google, and including Apple and all the others, Instagram and what have you, internationally, is that other people can push back. That’s what the European Union has done. And one could argue, as long as they are private companies, that’s, OK; that’s in the marketplace, and anyway our Constitution and our Fourth Amendment and our protections don’t really apply. Size does; antitrust does, and so forth. But the interesting thing that your book illustrates, and that is so critical, is that they’re not private companies. That the revolving door between these companies and the government is whirling, whirling. And that’s why the Palantir story and Peter Thiel is so interesting. Because they are up to their eyeballs in getting government to bend to their will; they are part of the military-industrial complex; and your private data—and it’s really alarming. You know, we’re lulled into this idea that somehow our government is kind of on our side, and so when Edward Snowden reveals all this spying—using the data that Google has, and Facebook has, and everything—ah, well, but that is truly alarming in the rest of the world. And the reason that Google and Apple and Instagram and Facebook push back against the surveillance state—I think, and I argue in my own book, They Know Everything About You—is it destroys their international business model. Because if the U.S. government can get that data, then every government in the world can get it. And that’s, after all, the lesson of the Arab Spring; it was supposed to be great that Google was there, but then the Egyptian military could assert its power using that very same data and crush the opposition.

JT: Right. Guess what. I mean, you pointed this out, and Snowden pointed it out as well. When the NSA wanted to get data on 200 million people, they didn’t have to go and break into 200 million individual cell phones. They went to four companies. And they all had all the data on 200 million people. It was all there. So they didn’t have to work very hard. They just went into the servers of Google and Facebook and—you know, and so, and quite frankly, one of the things I’ve been kind of proud about Apple is that they have resisted some of this stuff. When the FBI wanted them to give them a trapdoor into the back of the iPhone, they said no. And they went all the way to the courts to do it. So, I mean, Apple has kind of been anti-surveillance capitalism.

RS: And I think the reason Apple has is ‘cause they make a product, basically.

JT: And it’s not based on advertising.

RS: Yes, that’s right, it’s not based on advertising, it’s not based on stealing your data, and exploiting it to sell you stuff. But for Apple to say, hey, we’ll let the U.S. government have a back door—then why can’t the Chinese government have a back door? Apple is finished. Who’s going to buy an Apple product?

JT: Right, exactly. The problem is, your point about well, as long as it’s just company-to-company or company-to-people, there’s a problem that I—I notice you’re wearing a smartwatch, right?

RS: Yeah.

JT: So I’ve been with some—

RS: Outing me! [Laughs]

JT: —I’ve been with some life insurance and health insurance executives who’ve said, you know, in a couple of years we may give people a discount on their health insurance if they wear a FitBit or some kind of smartwatch that takes their heart rate all the time and uploads it to our servers every night. And I said, OK; so you give them a discount if they wear that. When does it come that you just say, you don’t get any health insurance unless you wear one of these devices? It’s a slippery slope.

RS: It was good that there was pushback on the surveillance state by Google, and more by Apple, by Instagram, by Facebook; they pushed back. I think they pushed back because public awareness that they were in cahoots with the intelligence agencies of the United States was threatening to their international business model.

JT: I agree.

RS: If you’re in cahoots with the U.S. government, you’re probably in cahoots with the Chinese government, the Egyptian government, and what have you. So you had one of these contradictions of capitalism. But until Edward Snowden revealed this—and this is what drives me crazy about, you know, people who blast Snowden, like democrats—like the democrat who’s the top democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and the top democrat on the Senate committee—they blast Snowden, until Snowden came out, that massive—others had come out with it, but that massive leak—they were denying this. They didn’t tell us they were in cahoots with the U.S. government or any other government, right? This was the thing. So the only reason we’ve had—at first, you know, they could say, oh, privacy, get over it, and who needs it—suddenly it turns out a lot of people in this country want privacy, and they want the Fourth Amendment taken seriously, you know? And, because it’s intimidating to have people know every move and how far you read in a book and what your email and so forth said. So, but without those whistleblowers, these so-called libertarians—that’s my point—you know, these libertarians, so-called, and I’m not blasting every libertarian; you don’t, in your book you’re a little bit unkind to the Electronic Frontier Foundation; I happen to like them a lot, because I think they are principled people about privacy. There are others. But the fact of the matter is, the people you describe in this book, they make a show of being libertarian. They’re not. They’re in bed with government surveillance agencies.

JT: So in terms of pushback, I think first is maybe privacy. We need to have real privacy laws, and Walt Mossberg was, you know, at the Wall Street Journal for many years and then had Recode; kind of the premier technology analyst in the world, said if we don’t get some privacy legislation, it’s over. It’s, we’re really screwed. So that’s the first thing. I think we need to push back on this safe harbor thing. And the third thing is, it maybe some time down the line that we need real antitrust enforcement. It may be that there’s a certain place where these companies should not get any bigger than they are, and maybe they should be broken up; I mean, it wouldn’t be hard to break up Facebook and make them sell Instagram and Whatsapp so that they all three would compete with each other, instead of being all on the same team, you know?

RS: Well, let me go a little further with that. Because you say oh, maybe we should get back to antitrust; antitrust is what saved capitalism. OK? And this was understood by Adam Smith and David Ricardo—

JT: And Teddy Roosevelt, who was a republican!

RS: Yeah, they understood it, that capitalism is a system that would swirl out of control and destroy itself. The same way socialism is, if it’s not checked, then it becomes totalitarian; we know that, we have plenty of examples. So it has to be saved from itself. And I am amazed; we are in a situation right now where Whole Foods, a company owned by a libertarian, prides itself on its own standards, its own—has now, is now owned by Amazon. Well, first of all you’re eliminating a whole area of competition, because is this the same product—and then part of Sears is now going to be owned by Amazon and so forth. And here’s Amazon, that’s building the cloud for all of the top national intelligence agencies—and the owner of Amazon, one of the richest men in the world, now buys the Washington Post, which is the newspaper we count on most to cover what’s going on in Washington. Well, he—and no one I know, all this crap about fake news—because it’s basically used in a very selective way; you know, fake news by democrats, they don’t like the other guys. But wait a minute, what kind of news are you going to get out of the Washington Post if the guy that you’re warning us against, Jeff Bezos, owns that paper? We’re supposed to think, oh, he doesn’t have any interest? No! The fact of the matter is, he’s doing what Peter Thiel did in taking on Gawker; they got the money and the means now to stifle debate and control the action. I would think that’s really the frightening message of your book, that they can control the artist, they can control content, they can control creativity. But what happens–you say, oh, they should have controlled fake news–well, what if they decide, Facebook or Google, hey, criticizing or calling for antitrust, criticizing to us–that’s fake news. They could say anything’s fake news, right?

JT: Right. That’s right. I mean, look. This is a very tricky situation we’re dealing with here. Because whenever you have too much power in such a small group of people’s hands, it’s not good. You know, I come from a kind of Justice Brandeis point of view, that concentrates in private power are bad for democracy, no matter what. Basically, this guy Robert Bork set the table for what antitrust law has been since 1980. So Bork said basically, the only thing that matters is price. So if Amazon buys Whole Foods, and prices don’t go up, then that’s OK. Well, in that theory, Amazon could be the only retailer in all of America, and they could put everybody out of business. And because they’re so powerful, they keep prices down; you know that ‘cause you’re an author. Amazon pushes publishers to lower their prices all the time. Amazon may win, but authors and publishers lose all the time, because it’s what Paul Krugman calls a “monopsony.” That same thing happens all over the economy. And so we have to be careful—we’ve got this situation where it’s really dangerous.

RS: It’s dangerous, it’s scary, and you know what the problem is? You know, as Orwell and Huxley warned us, people might welcome it because of the convenience of shopping; consumer sovereignty trumps political sovereignty; freedom to shop trumps anything else. So we might be in for a very dangerous ride. But that’s it this week for Scheer Intelligence. Thanks to my guest, communications professor, former music industry honcho, representing bands, then went to work for Merrill Lynch, I didn’t get into all that; you know a lot about the business world as well. The author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon cornered culture and undermined democracy. The producers for Scheer Intelligence are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. I’m Robert Scheer. See you next time.


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