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Verizon Slashes Usenet Access; Users Actually Notice

Last week, we covered Verizon's agreement, with other Internet providers, to stop providing access to Usenet newsgroups carrying child pornography.

This week, details about how Verizon will do that emerged. The broadband provider, one of the two biggest services in the Washington area, will not just drop the relatively small number of newsgroups used to distribute this garbage, but every other group in their neighborhood.

Even more surprising, Verizon customers are noticing and taking objection to the move.

A little background may be necessary for the many of you thinking "What is this Usenet thing you're talking about, some Web site?"

Usenet is a vast array of online forums, called "newsgroups," that predates the Web by over a decade. Unlike the Web, it's hierarchically organized by topic. For example, to talk about science issues you'd look for newsgroups with names beginning with "sci."; for discussions about space, you'd look for "sci.space" newsgroups. Among them, you can talk about the history of space exploration in "sci.space.history." (See Wikipedia's summary for more details.) And it was once a Big Deal: AOL provided Usenet access years before it ever got around to connecting to the Web.

Usenet has no central governing body, so this hierarchical system can only be expanded with the agreement of many different users. As a result, it long ago acquired a catch-all "alt.*" hierarchy for topics that didn't fit into other established top-level categories. That has long been the home of some of the silliest discussions imaginable online, as well as many more serious ones. (After getting fed up with sappy "love on the Internet" stories, I once wrote a snarky summary of Usenet's "refuges for the romantically disadvantaged" -- alt.angst, alt.bitterness, alt.life.sucks, alt.romance.unhappy, alt.support.divorce, alt.support.loneliness -- that concluded with the admonition "But don't go looking for alt.love. It doesn't exist.")

The alt. newsgroups, however, aren't all text postings debating one thing or another. You can also employ them to distribute a file, encoding it into snippets of text that can then be reassembled into the original item with the right program.

My first experiments with downloading MP3s relied on these "binaries" newsgroups -- they were Napster before there was a Napster. Usenet works fairly well for this kind of distribution, since it allows both efficient distribution of a file and nearly complete anonymity for those who upload or download these files.

Hence the appeal of binaries newsgroups for child-porn sickos.

But Verizon hasn't elected just to drop the newsgroups they use, but the entire alt.* hierarchy.

When asked why, Verizon media-relations director Bobbi Henson wrote in an e-mail yesterday that:

We have decided to eliminate access to many of the newsgroups available over Verizon systems because newsgroups in the alt hierarchy have been identified as being particularly hospitable to child pornography. These newsgroups are not moderated and so operate without any supervision or control. Additionally, newsgroups are not used by the vast majority of Verizon customers.

That last sentence is undoubtedly true, but the implication that non-alt newsgroups are generally moderated or subject to any particular state of control is not necessarily so. Most people don't know what Usenet is precisely because so many newsgroups drowned in a flood of irrelevant or spam postings, starting in the late 1990s, that made them unreadable to anybody without a well-developed set of topic filters in their newsgroup software.

Usenet's decline had gone so far by 2000 that I could write a column headlined "Is Usenet Becoming Yesterday's News?" -- then worry about how many readers would even recognize the issue. (Some did; see the Slashdot discussion the story provoked).

Since then, Web forums, blog comments threads and mailing lists -- all of which allow for some sort of editorial oversight -- have become how most people talk about what's on their mind, while Usenet's forums might as well have virtual tumbleweeds blowing through them. I gave up on it several years ago: I once spent at least an hour a night catching up on my favorite newsgroups, but I removed my newsreader program and now barely bother to look around a few groups every few months via Google Groups' Web interface. So while I'm puzzled by Verizon's overreaction, I'm also surprised to see that enough people still participate Usenet to get angry about one provider cutting them off from part of it.

How would you have dealt with Verizon's situation? And at the risk of turning this into an Internet graybeards' convention, when's the last time you read anything in a newsgroup, or posted anything to one?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 20, 2008; 8:54 AM ET
Categories:  Telecom  
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Comments

Death of USENET predicted! YouTube video at 11!

I dunno. I don't think I've used UseNet since late last century. Last newsgroup I looked at was probably alt.barney.die.die.die, for the laughs. May have gotten the Barney Doom plugin from there.


Posted by: wiredog | June 20, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Oddly enough, my last and most enduring Usenet reading and posting was also on sci.space.history. And since I gave up on Outlook Express, and its news reader, back in '02, I too was using Google Groups to access the group.

And if it's been some two years since I last used Usenet, it wasn't so much SPAM as it was trolls, cranks, and flame-wars that finally drove me away to the heavily moderated, and always happily on-topic web-based boards at nasaspaceflight.com.

If the Usenet went away tomorrow, I wouldn't mourn.

Posted by: frank | June 20, 2008 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I read and/or post to Usenet every day, mostly alt.* groups. Good thing for me I have a reliable provider aside from my Verizon broadband connection.

Many ISPs know precisely squat about Usenet, unfortunately. I've been using alt.* groups for a dozen years or so, and I've never run across child pornography. I know where to find it if I wanted it, and there are news admins who could help Verizon identify those groups and drop them. Verizon could even use the ham-fisted decision to drop all binaries groups and to automatically delete all binaries that get posted to non-binaries groups, as well-run ISPs already do. But dropping text groups is just laziness and incompetence. They should just drop the pretense and stop offering Usenet altogether if they can't be bothered to manage it properly (cf. AOL).

Posted by: BW | June 20, 2008 12:33 PM | Report abuse

USENET is likely more used than people think. Many people just don't realize that Google Groups include USENET groups.

I've lost count of the times that someone advised others to "change their Google Groups settings," completely missing the fact that the other person isn't using Google to access a USENET group.

Posted by: Derek | June 20, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Usenet is alive and well. Take a look at the latest usenet volume statistics located here: http://www.newsdemon.com/average_feed_size.php

Also, http://www.newsdemon.com is offering all the displaced customers from VZ and TWC a lifetime 15% discount on new accounts.

Posted by: Chris | June 20, 2008 3:37 PM | Report abuse

This is also an economic decision. The alt hierarchy is probably more than half of all Usenet traffic. Verizon's newsgroup servers were never the best to begin with, but shedding half the load while making nice with the state AG? Win-win for VZ, and a loss for the subscribers.

I've already found a (free) alternate server, anyway.

Posted by: Jerry | June 20, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Well, let's ban everything that's not moderated and that isn't used by most people. Which is what, pretty much everything?

Verizon has always been an overly cocky former monopoly that thinks it can do what it wants without reprecussion (see "illegal wiretapping") and its recent competition from the likes of Comcast haven't yet sunk in that it is no longer the heir to Ma Bell!

Posted by: Morons | June 20, 2008 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Rob,

You should go talk to the people at the NCMEC.

Last week, there was an interesting report by Alex Goldman. Here's an extract:

...

"I tried to speak to this National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The conversation went something like this:

"Me: 'Do you know about the great things that local ISPs are doing to assist police with Amber alerts?'

"They: 'ISPs are in violation of the law and will go to jail if they don't get the message.'

"Me: 'Aren't you interested in learning what real businesses are doing already?'

"They: 'ISPs are in violation of the law and will go to jail if they don't get the message.'"

...

http://blog.isp-planet.com/blog/2008/06/in-the-name-of-blocking-child.html

Why don't you go talk to them, and see if they tell the same story to the Washington Post.

Posted by: reader | June 20, 2008 6:07 PM | Report abuse

I'm still reading some of the same groups I have read since 1994 (I'm old so I was late to the Internet). But I no longer read them through a dedicated newsreader but instead through Google Groups. Several of them are alt. groups that have spam under control.

Verizon just took the easy route.

Posted by: Rosie | June 20, 2008 6:36 PM | Report abuse

I used to read through messages in alt.tv.lost at least weekly. There's a lot of discussion and theories and links to screenshots that let you see details that flashed by too fast on the TV screen. But this past season of Lost, I decided not to spend the time keeping up with that newsgroup. But I do want to retain the ability to check there if I have some detail I want to find out about. Since I have Comcast, not Verizon, I can do that.

Posted by: Ghak | June 20, 2008 8:21 PM | Report abuse

I use Usenet for a couple topic areas over half a dozen separate groups in sci. and rec.
I like the discussion format very much.
The quality of usenet users has declined since about 2000, and some groups have been plagued by trolls or spam (usually both).

Google groups is the spam offender here as it is used by spammers from asia who post way off topic spam via Google groups. It's very disruptive and Google just ignore e-mails to the abuse@ address.

My ISP stopped adding new groups to its usenet server several years ago and general reliability in getting all messages or getting messages out has declined. So I've switched to a commercial usenet service (which, of course, costs money each month).

There is no (or very little) porn on the standard hierarchies, so if you simply don't go into the alt. hierarchy, you're good to go.

Posted by: Allen Braun | June 21, 2008 3:14 PM | Report abuse

When I received notice from Verizon that they were just going with the big eight, I responded that I thought that sucked. Then I proceeded to voice my displeasure on some of the O.Verizon newssgroups. The next day I did not have access to any newsgroup at all. Am I being censored? I can't find a technical reason why I can't connect.

I've always found the newsgroups to be a valuable and helpful resource. I've found help on virtually any topic immaginable - car problems, anxiety, education, finance, photography. etc.

As someone said above, Verizon took the easy way out. Saves the bandwidth from downloading those binaries and makes them more money. Spineless.

I could now be suject to "extraordinary rendition" to Burkina Faso.

Posted by: Question Quigley | June 21, 2008 6:53 PM | Report abuse

This is good news for everyone. Preventing n00bs from accessing the Usenet is wonderful, thus keeping it under the radar. I would be happy if all ISPs blocked all of it.

The binaries groups are where the action is (if you don't know what that means, then good), and the volume of traffic has never been higher. *Real* Usenet users pay for premium access through *real* NSPs.

As for child porn, if you want it you can find it (on the Web, in newsgroups, via IRC, via BitTorrent, delivered by the USPS), but I see how making it harder for casual perverts to find it is a very good thing.

Posted by: UsenetRocks | June 22, 2008 6:14 AM | Report abuse

I've used Usenet since the mid-1990s. Back then (before Google, etc.), this was the only way to get real info on travel to Central Asia. I still follow a few newgroups on Central Asia and photography, none of which are alt. *, so this probably won't affect me that much. However, there are substantive groups there; ISPs should filter out those that are primarily pornography, not all of them.

Posted by: RStoddard | June 22, 2008 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Road Runner is completely shutting down their USENET servers "due to low usage".

Posted by: Jeff G | June 22, 2008 7:45 PM | Report abuse

The technology for *dropping* binaries, as well as posts of a certain pattern and/or size, *before they even hit the server the users download from*, has existed for more than a decade. As a reader of Usenet, including some alt.* groups, and as someone who has a number of friends who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I take offense to Verizon's representation that this action in any way helps exploited children.

Posted by: Stan | June 22, 2008 10:38 PM | Report abuse

I haven't looked at a usenet group in several years.

When I first logged on to the net in 1998, I found a lot of stuff on those groups. But the communities I joined migrated to the yahoo groups...then migrated again to their own individual web sites.

Posted by: Daniel | June 23, 2008 9:20 AM | Report abuse

On the one hand we are told us everything on the internet is under surveillance for the purposes of 'counter terrorism', on the other hand we are told usenet access is to be blocked because they don't know about a small minority of users - this does not sound right to me, what's the real agenda here?


Posted by: Fred | June 23, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I read Usenet about once a week via Agent. I don't post much, but if there's an open question in my field I will take the time to reply. I've been reading Usenet since around 1991, was a Usenet admin for a while, and met some people I'm still friends with 15 years later.

I go back far enough to remember The First Usenet Spam (the green card lawyer).

Before Wikis, the best way to get factual information from the internet was to post something inaccurate on a Usenet group. You'd get dozens of people ready and willing to correct you.

Posted by: f2 | June 23, 2008 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I've used USENET/newsgroups since their inception. Verizon is outright lying when they say that the majority of their customer base does not access usnet groups. This is just one more way of the big ISPs to stiff and stifle web access to content that is not offensive.

Posted by: Kevin | June 23, 2008 5:04 PM | Report abuse

@f2: Thank you for reminding me of the Green Card Lawyers! I wrote a little piece about them for the Style section and promptly got a faxed nastygram from Canter and Siegel that closed with vague threats of a lawsuit. I so wish I could still find that fax...

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | June 23, 2008 5:39 PM | Report abuse


There is so much corruption on the Internet I have to agree with Verizon and as a customer support their decision.

Posted by: D.Whitley | June 23, 2008 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Usenet, don't leave home without it.
V(and others)have been touting their bandwidth and wonderful technology, and still choke off services.
Over time they have cut access via P.C.S. devices to charge more for metering service that was once just part of the package.
The sad thing is that the newer devices would be ideal for Usenet access since web pages are nightmares on the smaller format outputs and lower powered processors.
What's next pay TV? Oh, yeah, never mind.

Posted by: al | June 23, 2008 10:56 PM | Report abuse

Actually alt.* accounts for over 99% of usenet. Basically Verizon is cutting usenet without breaking their contract.

It becomes even more apparent when Verizon support and billing says usenet is just fine we just don't carry alt anymore. So you still get usenet, there is no breach of contract.

Posted by: Annoyed | June 24, 2008 4:08 AM | Report abuse

Among the newsgroups that Verizon added when reformulating their servers: alt.sex.jailbait.

It may not be there long as I have requested removal; but it just shows to go you what pinheads Verizon are.

Cheers!
Doc

Posted by: Doc Martian | June 24, 2008 6:15 AM | Report abuse

Re those lawyers: someone (forget who) had a usenet vendetta against them and sold t-shirts to help fight The Good Cause. I still have my shirt.

The other big Usenet problem was September -- the freshmen would get access and Make Money Fast! would take over for a few weeks while we, um, straightened out the noobs. Then AOL came in and the fun never stopped.

One more Usenet geezogram: at a software conference a woman said "I know your name." Turns out we "knew" each other from misc.kids .

Posted by: f2 | June 24, 2008 7:23 AM | Report abuse

I haven't used USENET in over 10 years, and I honestly haven't missed the spam, or more often flame wars. I really can't even remember all the groups I thought were worth reading back then, but I do remember my favorite discussion (I believe it was on AGM - alt.good.morning): we had a massive game of Calvinball!!

Posted by: Chris | June 24, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The ISP's do not care about child porn. What they care about is what affects their profits. There is a move coming up to change the way Internet is charged.

As People get used to the idea of using the internet for telephone television teliplay. They will be raising rates for those that want more speed to watch videos online and such and charging a fee to view. They hope to get you to do more pay per view and want the bandwidth that was used by Usenet.

Rather than fix the problems with their wiring so it can carry the load they are cutting services and using child porn as a disguise.

They want to take control of the video market on the web like they have on the air waives so people have to watch just what they offer and see all the commercials they wrap around them to poision us.

Just as in cable television where they force you to buy packages of 10 or 20 programs to just watch 1 show you want we will see them doing the same soon now that they have been allowed to take this first step in limiting our access.

Soon we will only be able to get what they offer us.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 24, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

The scamming of child porn and virus files on the newsgroups has increased a lot in the last couple of month. It seems someone has been poisioning it. Now I under stand what was going on.

Posted by: tostane | June 24, 2008 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I use USENET weekly, but it's more to download files rather than post conversations with other people.

Posted by: Sandlapper | June 24, 2008 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I use usenet daily for all kinds of things. Verizon used a chainsaw instead of scalpel. They could reconfigured their newsgroups to eliminate all of the sex picture and movie sites that exist. Alt.* groups aren't all bad, and this just shows disregard for people who use their computers most. There won't be enough outcry because we're a lost minority.

Posted by: Seth | June 24, 2008 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Wow they cut a lot of sites for jobs around the country.

In these economic times how smart was that?

It's not funny when what you watch and read can be banned by a few companies who control access to all media.

Now verizon wants to offer, internet, phone and TV? Now they control what you can read and see on your computer! How long before they control what you can say on your phone?

This is a VERY dangerous move and something we need to look at as Americans who are used to free speech.

I can only think of Hitler buring books or the Chinese banning what their people can read on the Internet too.

America has sunk so low that now we have the SAME poilicies as the Communist Chinese.

Leave it to the Democratic Party to take away your rights. Thanks Como.

What's next?

Can't smoke, can't eat fat food, can't own a gun, can't read things on the Internet.

If anyone thinks The Democrats won't stop until they own us from the moment we're born until we die... just look at what has happened.

We now live in a country of no freedom. Every restriction brought to us and pused by a Democrat.

WAKE UP AMERICA!!!!


Posted by: ED | June 24, 2008 9:49 PM | Report abuse

This entire thing is a scandal and theft.
Usenet is part of the internet experience and cancelling it under the fake pretense of saving the world from Kiddie Porn is just your standard corporate horsecrap for the housewives to willingly consume as mana from the gods.
There should be a class action lawsuit to force these ISPs to defray the cost of their service to match what it costs to buy a new USENET service. In addition, they should be sued for throttling traffic- another wildly illegal pastime that roadrunner and comcast have been caught doing.
You can't sell TURBO internet and then turn around and throttle it.

Posted by: Thetruth | June 24, 2008 10:50 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it's fair that my ISP Verizon has removed so many alt usnets.. I love downloading music using xnews and compiling the segments using winrar..

try it while you still can..

Posted by: john roberts | June 25, 2008 1:00 AM | Report abuse

A valuable contribution toward literacy might be made by the Post if it would distinguish and clarify meaning among " information processing technology", " technology" and " educational or instructional technology". Not the same animals! A crying 2008 need in this nation is acknowledged by the National Academy of Engineering, AAAS Project 2061; National Governor's Association; International Technology Education Association; National Science Board to name five. Computers, Internet, Cell Phones, IPods et al are part of
" information processing technology". By dropping the " Information Processing" you are only partly correct. Try Transportation, Manufacturing, Construction,Medical, Food, Housing, Energy,Aerospace, Power,Tools,Materials, Processes and "the core of technology-invention". Then please study the Encyclopedia Britannica under " Technology" and sub headings to better understand what you are attempting to convey. Technological Literacy is a national issue and national problem. Witness the NAE's Tech Tally and Technically Speaking- Why All Americans Need To Know More About Technology, and read the AAAS Project 2061 materials for clarity, terminology and understanding. Then help to convey this to readers. Everyone benefits.

If you doubt the need, please try this: Put a pen or pencil in your shirt pocket and wear a name tag so you appear " Official" . Take pad and pencil in hand and ask the next ten adult people you meet: " What is technology?" and record the responses. You will be amazed at the responses! Then report these results.

Posted by: Dr.Wes Perusek | June 25, 2008 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Although I won't miss Usenet and haven't read it for years, my wife and I constitute one of those sappy love stories you hate, and ours predates the entire alt hierarchy by a few years. We met on the Usenet group net.singles 22+ years ago when I was in NC and she was in NJ. You should be lucky enough to have such a wonderfully deep, long-lasting, sappy relationship. ;-)

Posted by: Rainier Wolfcastle | June 25, 2008 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I use Usenet daily and have done so for over ten years. I post to alt.usage.english, a group dedicated to discussions about the English language, but as in most groups, there are many other topics that crop up. My ISP is Comcast, and it provides excellent Usenet access via GigaNews. I have not heard anything about any planned restrictions on the part of either of those organizations.

Posted by: Skitt | June 25, 2008 4:12 PM | Report abuse

It seems all too appropriate that, in a discussion about Usenet, it only took 31 comments to prove that Godwin's Law still works. Thanks, Ed!

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | June 25, 2008 4:26 PM | Report abuse

I'm a...I *was* a regular reader of alt.books.pratchett, and an occasional reader of alt.fan.pratchett.

Verizon's unilateral decision is quite irritating, enough so that I'm now investigating going elsewhere for DSL service.

Posted by: A.Reader | June 25, 2008 4:52 PM | Report abuse

It was just a matter of time. Usenet's had deteriorated into a cost free way of distributing pornographic and mainstream copyrighted materials such as films DVD's CD's and mp3's. It was the medium of the foreign computer science majors who developed the techniques that circumvented the text only rules. Foreign students are notorious for wanting something for nothing until they get out into the real world and learn what it takes to actually produce something. I am all for sending all the CS majors back to India and Saudi Arabia where they came from and letting Americans start writing the software again. Everybody knows they cheat there way through school while the professors look the other way. Some of the worst child pornography I have ever seen was posted by Moslems and the East Asian Indians are not far behind. After all they believe we are sub-human so are offspring are worthless and deserve exploitation.

Posted by: Arnold Huffington Smyth | June 26, 2008 12:15 AM | Report abuse

I am a daily usenet user, Verizon just lost me as a customer, I will be switching phone and internet to Comcast

Posted by: Brent | June 26, 2008 7:32 AM | Report abuse

I want to thank several posters in this forum; pointing me to www.newsdemon.com and www.teranews.com (up to 50 MB per day free, which should be quite enough for my humble needs) -- I'll miss the binaries, but not enough that I'm willing to go and pay extra for them.

I _really_ miss alt.usage.english and alt.support.diabetes, and I'm annoyed at Verizon for taking them away. Unfortunately, Verizon's the only high-speed two-way Internet provider in my town (and the only local phone provider), so I'm a captive audience.

However, as soon as my cable company provides two-way high-speed internet and local phone (a year or two), Verizon can say goodbye to my monthly payments.

Posted by: Phil S. in NJ | June 27, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Reading the above I'd have to say that while the binary UseNet has declined in terms of individual posting recently it is still used to a great extent by organized groups, perhaps even more than ever, and it seems ppl here are mostly unaware of it. It is obviously no longer in Verizon's interest to maintain it, even if it were entirely legal, because they are trying hard to become a cable and dish competitor. For the moment they say they will not restrict b/w but I suspect that will be next, particularly considering the economic climate, and it may be necessary to not only use SSL but some proxy to access NSPs to prevent be specifically targeted.

Posted by: GW | June 27, 2008 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I have a couple of questions:

1. Why didn't Cablevision, who derives the majority of their revenues from NY join in this agreement?

2. Is it actually legal for the AG of NY to affect what happens to service I get in NJ? If so, then why is Schwarzenegger in CA trying to convince some of the same companies to do the same thing?

Posted by: OnlyLiveInNJ | June 28, 2008 1:55 AM | Report abuse

Saturday morning, June 28, 2008. Tried going to Google Group search. I was informed "The requested URL
/advanced_group_search?hl=en was not found on this server." This is
very disturbing as the Google Group search is usually one of my first
stops when I'm trying to find a solution to a problem. In the past
Google Group search has quickly provided solutions to problems (auto,
receiver, antenna, software development and hardware, etc). Now,
apparently, this resource is gone. Is the missing Google Group search
related to the Verizon action?

Posted by: Joe | June 28, 2008 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Folks, watch out if you should call Verizon asking for compensation on your monthly DSL bill due to the decreased service they're providing. They agreed to give me $5 back per month, BUT they slammed me into a year-long commitment that I did not agree to, and didn't even know existed! I suddenly got an email "confirming" my new monthly contract!

Posted by: unhappy Verizon customer | July 2, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

apparently Eric Rabe's PolicyBlog has disappeared, including his original explanation of Verizon's position, and the hundreds of user comments that followed (though note there was no followup or response by Eric, or anyone at Verizon). http://policyblog.verizon.com home page now reads "There was a problem with your request. Please try again."

any doubts as to the contempt Verizon shows its customers?

Posted by: jk | July 3, 2008 5:42 PM | Report abuse

apparently Eric Rabe's PolicyBlog has disappeared, including his original explanation of Verizon's position, and the hundreds of user comments that followed (though note there was no followup or response by Eric, or anyone at Verizon). http://policyblog.verizon.com home page now reads "There was a problem with your request. Please try again."

any doubts as to the contempt Verizon shows its customers?

Posted by: jk | July 3, 2008 5:42 PM | Report abuse

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