Written evidence submitted by the National Union of Journalists (OSB0166)

September 2021

Introduction

 

  1. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is the representative voice for journalists and media workers across the UK and Ireland. The union was founded in 1907 and has 30,000 members.

 

  1. The NUJ represents staff and freelances working at home and abroad in broadcasting, digital outlets, newspapers, news agencies, magazines, books, public relations, communications, and lens-based journalism.

 

  1. The union is not affiliated to any political party and has a cross-party parliamentary group, the NUJ is represented on the government’s national committee for the safety of journalists and has worked on creating the associated action plan.

 

  1. The NUJ welcomes the opportunity to respond to the committee’s call for evidence on the online safety bill. We remain concerned that the draft legislation lacks sufficient safeguards for journalists and journalism. In addition, some aspects of the definitions and journalistic exemptions set out in the bill remain unclear. 

 

  1. The NUJ has seen a spike in online threats, harassment, and attacks against journalists in the last 18 months. NUJ members have received online death threats, rape threats and other threats to physically harm them, their families, and their homes.

 

Summary

 

  1. In 2020 the NUJ carried out a UK members’ safety survey which highlighted some of the problems the bill is aimed to address. The union strongly believes that the safety of media workers has deteriorated further since the research findings were first published last year and the union is calling for the draft legislation to increase the penalties for carrying out online harassment and abuse.

 

  1. The NUJ believes the proposed new legislation will help increase the safety of journalists, but the draft legislation could be improved. For example, references in the bill to the free expression of journalistic content and online harm are both too vague.

 

  1. Website providers, social media platforms and media companies should be compelled to take action to tackle online abuse. Material that doesn’t pass the editorial or legal threshold for other published material - as abuse, threats and defamatory content clearly does not - should not be publishable on the sites of media outlets in “below the line” commentary dressed up as reader engagement.

 

  1. The bill should be amended so that media employers are legally required to support staff and freelance workers when facing online abuse. It is often the same abusive perpetrators using social media platforms, blogs/user generated websites, and media outlets’ comment sections. Closing off some of the avenues to inflict abuse online is likely to have the unintended consequence of intensifying the level of abuse in the spaces that remain a free for all.

 

  1. There is no reason for the government to exclude media companies from having a duty of care towards workers or the public when it comes to online safety, but only if this is sufficiently balanced with freedom of expression and enshrines protection against any form of editorial interference. The online harms legislation should also be used to help bolster the existing health and safety legislative framework, including the existing legal protections for workers.

 

  1. Many of the new measures proposed in the bill should be subject to monitoring, review, and public consultation (post-implementation) to ensure they are effective and fit for purpose. An advisory panel of experts should be established to support Ofcom’s new remit. Social media platforms should also be compelled or encouraged to set up stakeholder engagement activity. Online platforms also need to increase their staffing levels, public accountability and transparency.

 

  1. The NUJ want to see increased protections for journalists’ communications, sources and whistleblowers (added to the bill) in the parts of the draft legislation that enable the authorities to access the private communications of citizens.

 

  1. The legislation should also focus more effort on tackling the perpetrators as this would help to drive up standards on the internet.

 

NUJ safety research findings

 

  1. The NUJ safety report was based on responses to an online questionnaire sent to all UK-based NUJ members in September/October 2020. The survey asked questions about different types of abuse and harassment and asked for suggestions and recommendations on how to tackle the problems identified. In addition to the survey responses, various meetings and discussions with NUJ members were held and have fed into the recommendations presented below.

 

  1. The NUJ safety survey points to the differences between exercising freedom of expression online and offline in one key regard - the survey found that a relatively small number of journalists have been physically attacked or threatened: 21% of respondents reported physical assaults or attacks had taken place and 27% of respondents said they had experienced physical threats. When differentiating between different types of threats, it is possible to say that much larger numbers of NUJ members have experienced abuse and harassment that has taken place online. It is also the case that many incidents of abuse start online, but become a “real-life” threat, such as examples of stalking, and in-person harassment.

 

  1. The key findings included:

 

Abuse of media workers on social media

 

  1. In response to a survey question about social media usage: 75% of respondents said they have a work-focused social media presence with 87% of respondents having a Twitter account, 49% with a Facebook account and 54% have a Linkedin account.

 

  1. When asked about online harassment and abuse within the last year and connected to work: 51% of all respondents said they had experienced online abuse in the last year and out of those 31% of respondent experienced it infrequently and 20% experienced it on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

 

  1. NUJ members said:

 

    1. “I’ve been doxed and threatened to be shot.”

 

    1. “My photograph has been circulated on far-right websites with threats to assault me.”

 

    1. “Call for me to be killed in newspaper’s comments.”

 

    1. “I experience online stalking, and the stalker repeatedly attempts to contact my family, friends and children. If blocked on social media, they just change the account name or set up a new one and carry on.”

 

    1. “My home address has been published online, I had to move after my house was targeted by the far-right.”

 

    1. “I was told to be careful about what I said on social media because what I say may affect my husband.”

 

    1. “I was doxed by a men’s rights activist who included details of my family members in their post, this caused a lot of worry for my family. I’ve recently had a prominent far-right activist try to add my brother on Facebook, presumably so they could find photographs of me.”

 

    1. “My partner had suffered online abuse. My children have a heightened awareness of privacy on social media and are unable to have a public presence on it in the way their peers do, or publicly have their achievements celebrated. We do everything possible to prevent the stalker from knowing where we live or being able to contact our children.”

 

    1. “I have grown up children who have seen some of the more graphic sexual abuse and my daughter had to stay in a hotel with me during her exams because I was under a death threat.”

 

    1. “When I had death threats and rape threats for one piece I wrote, nobody understood how bad it was. The abusers found me on every platform, there were thousands of abusive messages and I was afraid for my family that I would be doxed (have my address posted online). The editor and my desk editor didn’t even ask if I was ok and they obviously knew how bad it was because they were getting messages calling for me to be sacked. I felt completely alone. There was nobody to talk to and no procedure to follow. This was a few years ago now. I’m good at advising young reporters who suffer the same thing and I hope that I help but I shouldn’t have had to learn the hard way.”

 

  1. The types of threats NUJ members have experienced included:

 

Reporting online abuse to employers, police and social media platforms

 

  1. As part of the survey NUJ members stressed the lack of employer support and duty of care, 33% of NUJ respondents agreed that employers could do more to protect journalists at work. The government could do more to encourage and compel media employers, not just social media platforms, to take responsibility for the online safety of media workers including both staff and freelances.

 

  1. NUJ members said:

 

    1. “I’m a freelance reporter and there is no legal obligation for the outlets I write for to support me.”

 

    1. “I felt unable to discuss personal matters with them [the employer] and there has been no clear chain of reporting. I had reported online stalking to previous management and tech support, but not to the new management since the takeover of the company. As one of few staff working remotely, I’ve felt my job has been more precarious, and did not wish to add further complications.”

 

    1. “They know that abuse on Twitter is widespread and toxic, but my employer is concerned that replying to abuse often makes it worse. Also virtually everyone in our organisation who is on twitter is subject to it. It’s part and parcel of audience interaction.”

 

    1. “I would like to see them take more responsibility when they knowingly send us to report on issues that will draw abuse. I was sent to a week-long trial with a well know far-right figure about a year ago, and it was in the afternoon that my editor phoned me to say that the last time we had reported the case the journalist who did had received death threats. I feel like that information should have been given to me before I went as I was in that situation, and it might have altered my decision to go in the first place.”

 

    1. “I’ve had that with one title, where the senior staff (not the commissioning editor, people above them) have said it was expected that contributors don’t view the finished piece as the end of the commission, and that it’s by now an understood part of a commission to continue to add to the published story by engaging with comments etc… I think this is actively dangerous, as well as being exploitative (rates have not risen to reflect the extra work involved, never mind the stress accrued, from checking and re-checking expanding screeds of comments, and responding to them). Making it clear that it’s voluntary whether or not to do this and stressing explicitly that anyone not doing so won’t be penalised by losing out on future work, would be welcome.”

 

    1. “Recognise that unregulated comment normalises abusive, negative attitudes and undermines trust in journalism. Moreover, the drastic reduction in staff numbers does not help - overstretched reporters working without the support of subs and experienced editors cannot be expected to produce the volume of quality news that online audiences desire.”

 

    1. “Genuine statement of intent and action against perpetrators rather than acceptance that hate speech equals hits.”

 

    1. “Stop employing ‘grifters’: columnists and controversialists with scant regard for the truth, who fuel hatred and corrupt the civility of public discourse.”

 

    1. “I think editors have to be careful in the headline they give a piece knowing that if it’s poorly phrased the backlash will come to the reporter not them. They are there to serve as a check on anything that could unfairly expose a journalist and sometimes I think they can be a little driven by courting controversy for clicks.”

 

    1. “I was given a verbal warning for blocking those harassing me via the company account. One week later I was made redundant.”

 

    1. “Trolls in the reader’s comments section are becoming bolder, more threatening and more vicious and it is having a detrimental effect on the confidence of reporters, particularly trainees and newly qualified reporters who may lack experience. The issue is compounded by the fact that many big corps such as Newsquest, have laid off many of their more experienced sub editors and sports/feature writers meaning there are less experienced hands in the newsroom to deal with this level of aggression.”

 

  1. When asked about policies in place to deal with safety and protection issues, most respondents (56%) said they did not know if there was a safety policy in place at work.

 

  1. Most respondents (64%) said they had not reported the abuse to their employer.

Reasons why the abuse had not been reported included:

 

  1. When asked if an employer was supportive when an NUJ member had attempted to report abuse: 23% of respondents said yes and 5% said no. Examples of supportive action taken by media employers included:

 

  1. Comments from respondents linked to action by employers that was not supportive included:

 

  1. When asked about reporting abuse to the police: 11% of the survey respondents said they had reported incidents to the police and when asked if the police were supportive and helpful 4% said yes and 4% said no.

 

  1. Responses related to reporting incidents to the police included:

 

  1. The survey found that 34% of respondents had reported abuse to social media platforms and 80% said that reporting the abuse had not made any difference. Furthermore, an overwhelming number of respondents (93%) said social media platforms do not robustly implement their own policies intended to deter and stop abuse, and an overwhelming number of respondents (88%) said that social media platforms should do more to combat abuse and harassment.

 

  1. NUJ members said:

 

    1. “Just taking reports of harassment or abuse seriously to begin with would be a start. People think they can say what they like as there will be no comeback.”

 

    1. “Ideally they should be prepared to lose users/traffic in the interests of maintaining a safer environment for all.”

 

    1. “Twitter are hopeless, they have very good guidelines regarding abuse but they simply don’t follow them. Even after there was a person prosecuted for abusing me the threats, abusive and sexual content remained and still remains online.”

 

    1. “If you are a journalist you should be able to register as a journalist, with an easier way of beings ‘accredited’ with a blue tick which should then afford your account closer monitoring for harassment.”

 

    1. “Employ real people rather than artificial intelligence, ability to escalate to a real person, get smarter people on the ball with the ability to see the wider picture of how a certain tweet or comment constitutes abuse.”

 

The impact of online abuse

 

  1. In terms of the threats that are linked to protected characteristics: 18% of respondents said they had experienced abuse or threats related to their gender, 13% experienced abuse or threats related to their age, 10% of respondents had experienced abuse or threats related to their ethnicity and 8% of respondents had experienced abuse or threats related to their sexuality.

 

  1. More than half (55%) of the respondents said the abuse had affected their wellbeing and mental health and 48% said the abuse had made them fearful or anxious.

 

  1. Just over a quarter (26%) of respondents said they had made changes to the way they work and 19% of respondents said they had made changes to their home and/or personal life.

 

  1. NUJ members reported they had deleted social media accounts, stopped posting on social media, changed their social media account and changed or tightened their privacy settings in response to online abuse.

 

NUJ online safety recommendations

 

  1. As part of the union’s safety survey, NUJ members were asked to make suggestions about what action could be taken to increase the safety and protections for journalists. The comments applicable to this inquiry have been included below.

 

  1. Action against perpetrators:

 

  1. Action relating to employers:

 

  1. Action relating to the authorities:

 

  1. Action relating to social media platforms:

 

  1. The NUJ has organised a range of meetings and events, alongside the NUJ survey, where the following suggestions were made:

 

  1. A survey conducted by NUJ Scotland showed cyberbullying affected the way 50% of respondents worked. It also found the main sources of cyberbullying were via Twitter (65% of responses) and on online comments sections, 28% were directly threatened with violence or serious harm and 5% were subjected to threats of violence or serious harm to their families.

Committee consultation questions

 

 

  1. The proposed new legislation will help to increase the safety of journalists and media workers, but the NUJ believes the draft legislation could be improved.

 

  1. For years the NUJ have been calling for government action to close down specific websites (including user-generated content) which seeks to intimidate and silence the media and we still have no effective means to respond to harmful content about NUJ members that is published and disseminated online (not just on social media platforms).

 

  1. Website providers, media companies and social media platforms should be compelled to take action to tackle online directed at their workforce or the public. Material that doesn’t pass the editorial or legal threshold for other published material - as abuse, threats and defamatory content clearly does not - should not be publishable on the sites of media outlets in “below the line” commentary dressed up as reader engagement.

 

  1. The bill should be amended so that media employers are legally required to support staff and freelance workers when facing online abuse. The bill should introduce new measures that would compel media outlets to protect media workers when dealing with the full spectrum of online abuse including the “below the line” comments.

 

  1. The union believes it is often the same abusive perpetrators using social media platforms, blogs/user generated websites, and media outlets’ comment sections. Closing off some of the avenues to inflict abuse online is likely to have the unintended consequence of intensifying the level of abuse in the spaces that remain a free for all.

 

  1. Legislation is already in place to deal with many of the transgressions the internet allows. There are laws to protect health and safety, combat malicious communications, hate crime, copyright breaches; there are those on privacy, defamation, obscenity, intellectual property, indecency and terrorism. They just need to be applied equally to people using the internet and the companies involved.

 

 

  1. The NUJ welcomes new measures to make platforms pay for content and the union is calling for a one-off windfall tax of 6 per cent from the tech giants, then a levy based on profits imposed as part of a digital services tax to fund public interest journalism. The NUJ has also welcomed the setting up of the Digital Markets Unit (DMU).

 

  1. Journalism has been radically transformed by the arrival of the internet. It has transformed the way news and information is gathered and disseminated. It has transformed newspaper production and it has been the wrecking ball of a business model in which adverts paid for the news, and editorial and advertising were separate. Advertisers have flocked to online platforms while newspaper revenues have plummeted.

 

  1. In her report on the UK news industry, Dame Frances Cairncross highlighted how the number of “fulltime frontline” journalists have fallen from 23,000 in 2007 to 17,000 in 2019. Newspaper annual advertising spend also dropped by 69 per cent (£3.2 billion) and annual circulation revenue declined by 23 per cent (£500 million). These problems already existed prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.

 

  1. The destruction of the press – particularly the local press – has left a dangerous vacuum for trusted information and news and the conspiracy theorists and extremists have moved in. The lack of a robust local press has also unmoored citizens from their local democratic institutions and led to a loosening of community cohesion.

 

  1. By resourcing innovation and plurality in journalism it would help the media industry out of the current crisis and also support UK innovation and economic growth.

 

 

 

  1. There is no reason for the government to exclude media companies from having a duty of care towards workers or the public when it comes to online safety, but only of course if this is sufficiently balanced with freedom of expression and enshrines protection against any form of editorial interference.

 

  1. The online harms legislation should be used to help bolster the existing health and safety framework, including the existing legal protections for workers. Media employers already have an existing duty of care to their employees. They should also have a duty of care towards their freelance workers too.

 

  1. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in its stress management guidelines states that no one at work should be exposed to unacceptable behaviour (such as bullying, harassment and abuse), regardless of the source of that behaviour, when or where it occurred.

 

  1. The union’s health and safety committee is campaigning for employers to acknowledge that they have an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) to carry out “suitable and sufficient” assessments of risks which can be reasonably foreseen and then institute “reasonable precautions”. This obligation should be effectively promoted, monitored, and enforced.

 

 

 

 

  1. The government has said that the platforms will now have to consider the importance of journalism when undertaking content moderation, have a fast-track appeals process for journalists’ removed content, and will be held to account by Ofcom for the arbitrary removal of journalistic content. In addition, citizen journalists’ content will have the same protections as professional journalists’ content.

 

  1. The union supports some of the government’s new measures, especially the right of appeal when dealing with decisions taken by social media platforms, however these mechanisms should be subject to monitoring, review, and public consultation (post-implementation) to ensure they are effective and fit for purpose. 

 

  1. The NUJ believes there should be an advisory panel of experts established to review the implementation of this new law and to support Ofcom’s new remit. The panel should be diverse and be able to offer advice and assistance on a range of issues including dealing with complaints and properly evaluating the assessments that are going to be published by social media platforms about the impact on freedom of expression.

 

  1. Social media platforms should also be compelled or encouraged to set up regular stakeholder engagement sessions, advisory panels and/or public consultations on moderation, appeals and journalistic content.

 

  1. Online platforms should increase their levels of public accountability and transparency in relation to their algorithms, they should be compelled to publish their policies, procedures and data.

 

  1. The algorithms should be used to promote ethical and quality journalism as a priority. It also cannot be right that news publishers’ digital strategies can be made or destroyed on the whim of an algorithm determined by an American company.

 

  1. Algorithms do not comprehend human nuance and context and they do not sufficiently distinguish between different types of complex content. The NUJ believes that an effective model to identify and tackle online harms must involve sufficient staffing levels with appropriate expertise to oversee and respond to complicated safety issues on behalf of the public as well as the service providers.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The NUJ believes any new UK legislation should enshrine a clear and explicit commitment that the authorities will not interfere with access to information or journalism in the public interest, and a commitment made to respect the right of the public to be informed.

 

  1. The NUJ ethical code of conduct was first established in 1936 and it is the only ethics code for journalists written by journalists. The code is part of the union rules, members support the code and strive to adhere to its professional principles. The first principle in the NUJ code of conduct states: "A journalist at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed."

 

  1. The NUJ code also emphasises other principles that are interlinked with freedom of expression and these include: “A journalist:

 

  1. These NUJ principles offer a practical framework that helps to clarify the boundaries of what is desirable and permissible in terms of journalistic practices and endeavours online. These principles are also relevant and interlinked with the right to freedom of expression.

 

  1. Reporting and public interest journalism is already under severe pressure, and the legal backdrop to which journalists operate is itself a constraining force. Freedom of expression, whether on or offline, is threatened when the state (or any other organisations in society) attempt to interfere in any way with journalists who are reporting in the public interest. In general, this can arise when journalists are reporting on a range of issues including national security, terrorism, public safety, crime and corruption.

 

  1. References in the bill to the free expression of journalistic content are too vague and run the risk of giving additional powers to social media platforms in defining what is journalism. This could have a detrimental influence over quality journalism and media plurality online.

 

  1. The NUJ want to see increased protections for journalists’ communications, sources and whistleblowers (added to the bill) in the parts of the draft legislation that enable the authorities to access the private communications of citizens.

 

  1. Governments around the world have used legislation as a tool to silence journalists, identify their sources, jail whistleblowers and prevent public interest reporting. If the online harms and online safety legislation does not include clear and explicit commitments to safeguard journalists and journalism, then it is open to abuse.

 

  1. NUJ member have made a range of recommendations for online platforms, media outlets and the police about how to tackle harassment and abuse. Powerful individuals including politicians and public figures should also be held to account for their actions online, especially when it has an adverse impact on public debates and freedom of expression.

 

  1. The assault on the Capitol, spurred on by a president who has cultivated a narrative of the media as “enemies of the people” throughout his term of office, led to the trashing of camera equipment and news crews and reporters being abused online and in person, and left in fear of their lives. Whilst reporters continued to bring images of the mob at work despite the personal risk to themselves. 

 

  1. Damaging and dangerous political rhetoric is not restricted to the States. NUJ members have been demonised and impugned. The NUJ has called out briefings against so-called “campaigning newspapers” by Downing Street officials and there have been regular and tedious incidents of the dismissal of stories that politicians’ disagree with as “fake news” - a derogatory phrase that is then rehashed and dished-out as online abuse.

 

  1. The NUJ safety survey showed an overwhelming number of respondents (98%) agree that those in public office, including politicians, have a leadership role to play in maintaining high levels of public discourse and should avoid dismissing journalistic work as fake news. A similarly high number of respondents (97%) agree that disinformation and fake news undermines trust in journalism and increases hostility towards journalists.

 

  1. We would therefore like to see the committee consider recommendations, to amend the bill and/or to be included in the codes of practice, that apply to politicians and discourages activity that creates online harm.

 

 

 

  1. The union is concerned by the lack of clarity relating to the definition of “harm” in the legislation and the scope for political abuse and manipulation. Various governments have used local laws relating to the internet, public safety, crime and/or national security as a tool to clampdown on media freedom and freedom of expression.

 

  1. In June the home secretary, Priti Patel, wrote to social media platforms and urged them to remove clips that she claimed “glamourised” migrant channel crossings. This example helps to demonstrate the potential for the legislation to be subverted if the definition of what constitutes “harm” remains unclear.

 

  1. Technology could be put to better use to track, trace and tackle perpetrators who threaten journalists and freedom of expression. Focusing more effort on tackling the perpetrators would help to improve the social media environment and associated norms.

 

 

 

 

  1. Ofcom currently enforces the broadcasting code for TV and radio. It covers causing harm and offence, crime, disorder, hatred and abuse, impartiality and due accuracy, protection of under-18s, and privacy as well as commercial interests. The code is generally thought to work well and there is much to commend it in terms of considering a code for internet platforms. Broadcasters such as ITV have long argued that the internet platforms should be subject to similar rules.

 

  1. The NUJ’s own code of conduct provides an ethical framework for news gathering. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and Impress have codes, as does the BBC. The Ofcom code covers professional broadcasting organisations, but its principles should apply to the internet. However, those posting on the internet will not be professional journalists and will include people who wilfully or unwilfully misreport, mislead and be offensive.

 

  1. The bill sets out that journalistic content produced by recognised news publishers and shared on social media platforms will be exempted. Social media platforms will have a statutory duty to safeguard UK users’ access to journalistic content shared via social media. However, the bill contains some inconsistencies when referring to journalistic content.

 

  1. The ability of Ofcom to exempt journalistic content is dependent on being classified as a “recognised news publisher” but this ignores the current regulatory system including membership of IPSO or Impress, this is not the criteria for exemption from the bill.

 

  1. The bill also lacks clarity on the commitment to protect citizen journalists and this will inevitably hand over considerable powers to the social media platforms to decide. This could lead to quality journalism being censored, while other individuals could falsely claim they are citizen journalists.

 

  1. The NUJ support’s the proposal for the duties to be given to Ofcom so they can co-ordinate the work on media literacy across government, media organisations, platforms, academia and charities but Ofcom at present does not have sufficient resources to carry out the work.

 

  1. The NUJ also supports the new remit of Ofcom and the new measures to improve police action in response to online threats, abuse and harassment, including the specific proposals contained within the government’s action plan on the safety of journalists. The NUJ remains concerned that Ofcom and the police have not been given additional, adequate funding to ensure they are able to carry out this work.

 

 

  1. The NUJ supports programmes to improve media and digital literacy in the UK and new schemes that would help incentivise people to access accurate and reliable digital information.

 

  1. Education and support to improve media and digital literacy is vital in helping people to negotiate the internet, learn how to find respected news sources and differentiate between rumour, pastiche, propaganda and misinformation.

 

  1. Media literacy needs to be embedded in the curriculum from early years onwards and the rollout of nationwide media literacy initiatives is vital.

 

  1. The NUJ agrees with the select committee recommendation that the government’s media literacy strategy should include coordination between the Department for Education, Ofsted and Ofcom.

 

  1. By increasing the access to and provision of quality journalism would help fight against disinformation. That’s why the NUJ is calling for free vouchers for online subscriptions for all 18–19 year-olds and for tax credits for all households with subscriptions to news outlets.

 

  1. Creating new, public-funded schemes would help to incentivise people to access accurate and reliable digital information. It would also help to improve freedom of expression and help inform a more positive public debate.

 

  1. The NUJ support’s the proposal for the duties to be given to Ofcom so they can co-ordinate the work on media literacy across government, media organisations, platforms, academia and charities but the details need clarity.

 

  1. The bill says that Ofcom must carry out, commission or encourage educational initiatives designed to improve the media literacy of members of the public. However, the nature of these initiatives is not specified and how Ofcom will work with the Department of Education and others remains unclear.

 

28 September 2021

 

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