University of Queensland
Not long ago many cultural critics seemed to be living in what has been called "the age of the post", a moment in which knowledge was often organised through temporal metaphors expressing problematic relations between past and present. But recently spatial metaphors have been guiding much enquiry. There seems to be a renewed interest in the synchronic dimensions of culture. The rise of globalisation theories with their images of flows, relays, interconnections and homogenised spaces is a significant dimension of this. In the broadest sense, this paper engages with a few such spatial concepts - including "network", "deterritorialisation", and "translocal". However, it is aimed at evaluating the explanatory power these concepts may have in accounting for a specific, apparently paradoxical, mode of action: international Internet activism specifically aimed at opposing globalisation.
What is certain is that the Net is being used for translocal political activism: the online channels of the anti-globalisation movement spread ideas and influence across spatial and cultural borders with the aim of arresting the global hegemony of neoliberal capitalism. However, what is less certain is how to make sense of this trend, a particular problem being how to find standards by which to judge its efficacy. Not only does the sheer scale and diversity of online communication dwarf scholarly attempts to map it, but its inherently translocal nature means that it plays multiple roles in social contexts, and also connects and transforms such contexts. Can Net activism genuinely empower individuals and groups to act in effective translocal alliances? Or does it reproduce the "digital divide" between the information rich and the information poor? Can it help dethrone neoliberal globalism? Or does it ironically extend the dominion of an imperialistic network capitalism? I'd like to say, firstly, that these are ethically important questions that may influence attitudes towards the Internet and therefore also its uses and future development, and, secondly, that I would be inclined to answer "yes" to all four of them. The Internet is not an inherently emancipatory medium. The more interesting lines of enquiry lie in relativising its efficacy. Above all, this paper will question the degree to which, at a particular historical moment, the media format of the Internet lends itself to the mobilisation and communication agendas of those who oppose the globalisation of neoliberalism, perhaps giving them a comparative advantage over its advocates.
Before considering the relationships between translocal social and communication networks, I want to start by looking at the rise of associational politics. Since the 1960s there has been a large growth in the non-profit or so-called third sector of the economy. A plethora of NGOs, charities, lobby groups and think tanks are pursuing diverse political and social agendas. Most significant of all, for this study at least, is what Lester Salamon calls "a significant expansion in citizen activism" that has to some extent superseded traditional party political participation in many countries (111). While this shift is marked in Western countries, nonprofit activities are increasingly translocal. In the words of Salamon, who was writing in 1994:
This new form of civil society involves the creation of translocal "semi-public" spheres of associated actors, which to some extent transgress the established spatial logic of the citizens, the state and international relations.
The "associational revolution" Salamon has described is not necessarily radical, but refers to the organisational form in which links and alliances are forged between any semi-autonomous actors and organisations. Alternative social movements comprise only one strand of it. However, one emerging radical alliance, the anti-globalisation movement, sometimes called the Ragtag alliance to describe the diversity of affiliated parties, has grown into a major international phenomenon in the last two years. Although little academic research has yet been published about it, there is growing recognition of its significance. George Monbiot of the Guardian believes that: "The people's movements being deployed against corporate power are perhaps the biggest, most widespread popular risings ever seen" (21). Campaigns against corporate globalisation, the powers of International Economic Organisations (IEOs) and trade liberalisation extend across the Global South and North. Of course, it is not the campaigning that is new. Although they tend to be underreported in the Western media, large protests against economic imperialism have been common in IMF debtor countries for years. And the green, feminist and labour movements that are important elements of the Ragtag alliance are hardly new either. What is more recent is the sense of common purpose that groups and movements have found as they realise that various modes of oppression are, in their contemporary forms, upheld by the profit motives of global capital. For Jim Walch, the "new wave of associational activity" is contingent upon a particular historical moment in which the contraction of state welfare and the rise of neoliberal privatism have had widespread negative effects (3). The sight of radical feminists, trade unionists, indigenous and anti-debt campaigners and Earth First! activists marching side by side at the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in November 1999 seemed novel. However, such co-operation makes sense in a world where transnational corporations routinely exploit workers (especially women), damage the environment and arrogate the resources of indigenous peoples, and where the political system of (corporate) rights which frees them from taking responsibility is enshrined in free trade treaties and the power IEOs have to govern debtor countries through the instrument of loan conditions.
The organisational challenge facing the anti-globalisation movement is to use what private and public space is available to defend the commons that are threatened by global commodification. It aims to mobilise people everywhere against the disenfranchisement of local agency through the domination of capital which is increasingly mobile (and can leave social crisis in its wake, as in the 1997 disinvestment in South East Asia) and hard for "local" powers to discipline. The movement is therefore a form of translocal civil society that is obliged to organise across traditional political boundaries in pursuit of a solidarity in which resources and resistance are translocally distributed - in which they are at once local but also channelled into co-operative alliances.
Over the last few years the Internet has proven highly efficacious as a communication tool for the Ragtag alliance and other issue groups (such as women's, indigenous and environmental groups) whose concerns traverse diverse spaces. Information has been widely distributed among activists and citizens, and actions such as demonstrations have been organised partly online, increasing possibilities for translocal synergy. The medium has qualities that lend it to the organisational form of activism. Brian Martin and Wendy Varney cite qualities such as the Net's ease of use, wide availability and low cost, as convivial to its use by activists (n. pag.). The fact that it is a decentralised, distributed network currently makes it hard for any elite to control online activities. It allows fast one-to-one, one-to-many and even many-to-many communication in web and conferencing forums. Together, the technological and economic aspects of the Net allow for cheap self-publication without mediation by corporate publishing.
Of course, cheap is a relative term. The Net is cheap, not in absolute terms, but relative to the efficiency of message distribution. It is clearly not a panacea that guarantees freedom of speech for all. But while it is not accessible to everyone who has something to say, it does dramatically increase the numbers of people who can afford the time and money to distribute information translocally to large numbers of other people. In short, it allows individuals and community groups to reduce the influence gap between themselves and wealthier organisations.
Some who seek a point of origin for anti-globalisation Net activism refer to the Zapatista movement's struggle for the rights of indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico. By the time of the Zapatista uprising in 1994, President Salinas had changed the Mexican constitution to allow the privatisation of communal land in order to secure the NAFTA agreement, and the voices of indigenous people in Mexican politics had been ignored or silenced. On 1 January 1994, the day NAFTA took effect, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) took over several towns in Chiapas. Although the EZLN did not have direct Net access, supporters distributed first-hand reports of the ensuing conflicts over the Internet, and lists, sites and conferences dedicated to Mexican democracy were established. Harry Cleaver refers to the Internet circulation of Zapatista perspectives as a "mass verification process unprecedented in the history of media" (628). A government counter-attack in 1995 was subsequently halted under national and international pressure. However, the effects went beyond the immediate conflict. According to Cleaver, the Zapatista networks grew from their role of providing local solidarity "into an electronic fabric of opposition to much wider policies" (622). In 1996, the Zapatistas organised (through the Net) several large continental and intercontinental meetings bringing together groups to create global networks of movements opposed to neoliberalism.
Another campaign that played a formative role in both the Ragtag alliance and Net activism was the opposition, in 1997-8, to the World Trade Organization's proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The MAI would have given transnational corporations the right to sue governments that passed "protective" trade, environmental or labour legislation that could be deemed contradictory to the neoliberal principle of "free" capital flows. In other words, it prioritised the rights of transnational capital to move around the globe, to commodify resources and labour, and to have access to markets in as many places as possible, on its terms. In 1998 a draft proposal of the MAI was leaked onto the Internet. Once the details were out, because of the unprecedented ability of the Net to distribute messages quickly to dispersed audiences, they were out all over the world. Meanwhile, the dearth of mainstream media coverage of the MAI was remarkable, given the global significance of its bid to establish a world constitution for transnational investment. In 1998, Project Censored, a coalition of journalists and academics that monitors corporate media agenda-setting and "self-censorship", awarded the MAI its annual prize for the world's most under-reported news item. The contrast between the mainstream media non-coverage and the Internet-based exposé was marked. It is impossible to assess the impact this exposure had on the failure of the MAI. Its demise was more directly attributable to the objections of potential majority world signatories (and those of the French government). However, whatever the cause of its failure, the nascent alliance against international trade liberalisation seized upon the vulnerability of neoliberal globalist ideology. The well-informed rallying of various labour, environment, women's, indigenous and human rights groups against the MAI was to prove the foundation of the Ragtag alliance, which manifested itself more visibly as a blockade at the Seattle round of the WTO in November 1999. Once again the WTO liberalisation agenda was stalled, but this time the event was dramatic enough to warrant mainstream broadcast and print media attention. Since Seattle, neoliberal discourse has lost a great deal of its authority. Demonstrations against neoliberal icons such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank, regional free trade agreements, and the WEF, have created a new media thread which, however supportive of neoliberal globalism it may otherwise be, reproduces the basic idea that it is a debatable ideology promoted by an international elite, rather than a set of universal, self-evident truths.
The anonymous website S11.org provides a good example of how an Internet presence can increase grassroots communication and enhance the ability of protestors to mobilise. Along with related email discussion lists, it was instrumental in organising the large demonstration at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne between September 11 and 13, 2000. Affinity groups from around Australia were able to co-ordinate their plans through the information provided by the Melbourne S11 Alliance online. Not only was information available at all times for groups in all locations, but its hypertextual form allowed easy, continual editing to reflect developments, while an overall structure with which users became familiar was maintained. The multimedia aspects of the site enhanced the production values to a level beyond that normally associated with activist literature. The first level sections were "home", "events", "call-2-action", "Melbourne groups", "regional groups", "organising", "accommodation", "protesting tips", "propaganda", "what is the WEF", "corporate profiles", "issues", "FAQs" and "links". These sections provided not only organisational information for those already committed, but also persuasive critiques of corporate globalisation, supplied by affiliates. During its time of peak operations it had one of the highest hit rates for any Australian website (Luckman and Redden).
Sites like S11.org represent the combined intelligence and co-operative efforts of loose alliances of actors. They facilitate translocal, associational forms of politics, achieving a certain kind of organisational efficiency through division of labour. Not only was S11.org created by a range of actors, but it provided a nexus which connected their efforts continually with their non-local peers, creating a spiral effect of synergy. The S11 protest was itself part of the larger series of actions that follows IEOs and corporations wherever they convene to discuss world economic issues. Each protest group links to and invites others to learn from Net-disseminated knowledge.
Online anti-globalisation activities are not only confined to the organisation of demonstrations. Independent media sites such as indymedia.org provide alternative and usually somewhat corrective coverage of politics, as well as discussion. MediaChannel.org, a huge alternative media portal site established by disaffected journalists, presents contents from over 600 hundred affiliate organisations. Zmag.org features the commentary and analysis of left-wing, anti-globalist intellectuals, and now records over a million hits a week. Countless small and medium size sites provide similar fora. Other online activities are aimed at exposing the misdeeds of transnational corporations such as Shell, Nike and Monsanto. Types of campaign vary. Hacktivism and parody sites that seem real, often copying a company's official site designs but substituting PR content with exposé, are common. A 2000 site co-produced by Greenpeace and Adbusters, Cokespotlight.org, allowed concerned netizens to print out leaflets and stickers and to send emails directly to the CEO of Coca Cola, Doug Daft, demanding that the company globally discontinue the use of hydrofluorocarbon-cooled fridges. Daft (somewhat wisely) capitulated within a month. Cokespotlight, however, was a lightweight compared to McSpotlight.org, the site dedicated to monitoring the activities of McDonald's. McSpotlight grew out of the famous so-called McLibel trial in London where McDonald's sued two activists, a bar worker and a postal worker, for locally distributing leaflets criticising the company on health and social justice grounds. McDonald's won but had to back down from demanding damages as the public sensed the tyranny of its disproportionate muscle-flexing. The ironic upshot of the saga, however, was the creation of McSpotlight.org out of solidarity with the defendants. It is now believed to be the most comprehensive source of information ever assembled on a multinational corporation, and it had recorded over 12 million hits by 1999 (Atton n. pag.).
All in all, the Net allows a translocal, high-speed proliferation of knowledge about issues with global scope, and there is no doubt that activists are making good use of its potential for networking dissent. Corporate PR and government propaganda, on the other hand, depend upon the bureaucratic policing of knowledge within organisations, and benefit from restricted media spheres based on one-to-many communication channels that few of their critics can afford to employ. However, high quality Internet production is more accessible to them, and the translocal connectivity of computer-mediated communication allows diverse actors to co-operate quickly without bureaucratic censorship through sharing informational resources that might otherwise remain scattered.
Some commentators depict the Internet as an emancipatory medium. Influential theorists such as Donna Haraway and Mark Poster emphasise the liberty that Internet mediation gives people to transcend the socially normative restrictions that come with processes of social identification in offline spheres. According to this trajectory of thought, the Internet's ability to transfer social relations into virtual spaces allows for new forms of subjectivity and participation. Poster argues that the diversity and interactivity of the Net permits people, through the experience of multiplicity, to go beyond the "repressive fiction" of unifying identity (207-208). He rejects Habermas's concept of the public sphere as an homogenous space in which embodied subjects pursue consensus, and he also rejects related complaints that the mass mediation of electronic media is inimical to the deliberative communication between autonomous subjects that is traditionally viewed as democratic (209-210). Instead, the decentralisation of interaction and the mobile identities that cyberspace creates constitute "democracy itself": a sphere that threatens the centralised control of the state and non-democratic forms of authority vested in privileged persons (210, 214). Bryan et al. express a similar view:
I certainly believe that the decentralised interactivity of the Net has the potential to reinvigorate political discourse among the portion of the public that has access to it. However, Poster and Bryan et al. are somewhat formalistic in their approaches and fail to consider that common uses of the Net - such as business, pornography, banking, gambling, UFO conspiracies, activism, spirituality, personal correspondence, research, and racism - belong to broader cultures that precede and transcend their Internet forms, involving social relations that do not reduce to multiple interactivity. Specific people use the Net for specific ends. In my opinion, to suggest that being online per se involves new forms of subjectivity and non-territorial, flexible, elective communities is to reify the ethos of libertarian Internet pioneers rather than make claims that can be generally sustained, even though Internet mediation can transform cultures that use it.
In terms of spatial vocabulary, these commentators describe online communication as removing the preceding socio-political topography. However, as a consequence, the new spheres of interaction somehow remain negative casts of "what went before", defined largely in terms of a lack of territorial and sectional bonds and state power. The suggestion is of universal access to circulation in a global message space that banishes previous histories of differentiation.
However, accepting that cyberspace engenders "hyperdeterritorialisation" in which spatial divisions become less significant (Stratton 258) does not necessarily entail utopian social visions. Deterritorialisation may also be depicted in an obverse dystopic way in which space, historical time and significance are negated by instantaneity. The approach is probably most graphically illustrated in Paul Virilio's idea of a "general accident" whereby, through communications overload, time obliterates space, resulting in the moral blur of a society overrun by speed.
Kevin Robins argues that the Net empowers capital and obliterates local agency rather than creating new supraterritorial solidarities. According to him, the global elite itself is able to take advantage of computer-mediated communication in various ways, not least in facilitating instantaneous global capital flows. In these terms, the Net seems more like a metaphor for contemporary modes of making money than anything else. Robins wants to "question the unreflective assertion that the new, deterritorialised technological space is a 'better' space than the other (i.e. embodied and situated) spaces" (21). Rather than accepting the Internet as grounding "global communitarianism," he argues that the very global high-tech capitalism which is its condition of possibility is affirmed by its use. Indeed, there can be no technopolitics that do not represent "the attempt to reconcile political idealism with corporate reality principle":
He believes that deterritorialised knowledge space is corporate network space that disenfranchises the territorialised knowledges of the rest of the world's population. Cyberspace, he asserts, is a sequestered self-referential space that, far from being enfolded in and partly determined by specific social practices, has nothing to do with the "real world" (23).
But no medium is a self-enclosed universe. The Internet does not supersede other media forms, but exists alongside them, and knowledge migrates between networks and media forms. The radical information published on the Internet is often available in print form, and activists typically use the Net as one medium among others through which they may work. Online activism often ties in with print media, with journalists sourcing information from websites, and magazines and leaflets quoting URLs. Many of the large convergences of people in demonstrations against corporate globalisation that have taken place since Seattle owe their scale to online organising between geographically dispersed interest groups. In these cases the Internet is used as a kind of metaconnection between more traditional local-level organisational activities such as meetings, telephone trees, leafleting, and posting flyers and stickers. Not only does online synergy translate into bodies on very "real" streets, but the protests in turn have been instrumental in bringing the critique of globalisation onto the agenda in broadcast media. So in exactly what medium does "reality" reside? Online networking has brought new possibilities of fast translocal mobilisation to the culture of activism, rather than having done away with all of its old elements. It seems to me to be more than a coincidence that the evolution of the Net has been continuous with the formation of new activist alliances on the basis of already existing activist communities. The Net has enhanced relationships between geographically dispersed and issue-based groups. As Roland Bleiker argues, "The phenomenon of speed has not annihilated dissent" ("The Changing Space" 13). It has transformed it.
Robins also fails to relativise his claims. In particular he does not explain how corporate control of computing infrastructure is qualitatively different from corporate control of any other medium. The Ragtag alliance may use private computing resources but in fact, as Douglas Kellner notes, in terms of content, for many users the Net is one of the only decommodified spaces in the capitalist world (105). Manuel Castells appreciates the paradoxical conditions of possibility of online activist movements. He stresses the fact that networks can be dominated and steered towards certain sectional interests. Hence if capitalist domination of the Net sharpens we can expect technological designs and access to the infrastructure to favour capital rather than freedom of speech (ISPs charging for uploading is a good example). But there is no foregone conclusion. One cannot easily sidestep the contradictions of capitalism, one of which is that people often have to be able to pay for a speaking position in order to spread radical ideas at all. Network space is better appropriated for activism than left to those who would seek to commercialise all of its uses:
Places, and relationships of force of various kinds between them, do not cease to exist in network associations. Possible translocal relationships are multiplied from a communications point of view - but their nature is contingent upon socio-economic factors other than the medium used. Digital divides between those without access, those with limited access, and those with superior access, certainly exist. This situation mirrors pre-existing social and geopolitical inequalities. However, there is also a danger in using statistics which show individual Internet access as a standard against which to judge the value of the Net for already marginalised groups. Several studies have shown the Internet to provide an interface within disenfranchised communities and between them and translocal social networks. Wendy Harcourt argues that the Net has empowered women's struggles in the Global South (150-158), and, according to Peter Jull, the computer and the Internet are emerging as "formidable potential weapons" in the struggles of indigenous peoples (18). Despite not having direct Net access in the mid-1990s, the online distribution of their communiqués allowed the Zapatista National Liberation Army to organise gatherings on a scale usually associated with governments, "not poor villages of indigenous peoples" (Cleaver 630). In relative terms, the Net has increased the access of many marginalised groups to the means to influence large numbers of people.
I wish to emphasise that in increasing connectivity, dispersed networks do not "deterritorialise" knowledge per se. It is hard to see the use of the Net by the Zapatistas, for example, as adequately covered by the concept of deterritorialisation. Instead, we should focus on how specific actors make use of the Net's capacity to reconfigure relationships. In the case of Ragtag activism, this means acknowledging the apparent oxymoron that particular local agendas may benefit from translocal alliances that work around shared interests. Some scholars in international relations, notably Roland Bleiker, are attempting to account for the emergence of such associational politics in the age of electronic media. Bleiker calls it "transversal" politics in order to emphasise how information flows problematise the received spatial logic of international relations. Agency, in his view, should not be seen in terms of fixed relations to space, but in terms of discourse (Popular Dissent 16-18). In a world where ideas and images can be networked and travel through various spaces, transversal media feedback can have real effects in "local" spaces (125). For example, Bleiker attributes the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall not to acts of statecraft, but to the multiple signifying processes between people within East Germany and between them and people outside East Germany. Artistic activities, underground media and international electronic media involved East Germans in discourses of alternative ways of being that became expressed through practices and ultimately through political institutions.
Peter Waterman is another who denies the antagonism between "global" and "local" spaces. He states:
He talks of "communications internationalism," the basic relational principle of which is "that of the network rather than the organization" (216). He believes that the decentralising power of the new electronic media means that the technologies have possibilities which subvert the intentions of their developers: "A global information capitalism provides for more favourable terrains for emancipatory movements than those of an internationalized industrial capitalism" (214).
As Waterman suggests, the media form and the organisational form of translocal activism are closely linked. Yet research into new social movements has recognised their associational form since long before popular use of the Internet. In 1970 Gerlach and Hine stated: "We have found that movement organization can be characterized as a network - decentralised, segmentary and reticulate" (33). In characterising a movement as segmentary they mean
The communication forms of the Internet are congruous with forms of mobilisation - which are based on the co-operation of affinity groups - that have come to characterise popular dissent in the West since the 1960s. The emergence of new social movements was itself continuous with that of knowledge regimes "based upon a greater diversity of producers, distributors and audiences" (Thrift 40). The media conditions of possibility for this include increased access to printing, duplicating, telecommunications and computing resources over recent decades, and have given us some of those icons of activism such as flyers, college magazines and telephone trees.
The Internet extends these possibilities for fast co-operation between distributed cells of a movement. Its advent particularly serves the anti-globalisation movement's purposes. It creates the backbone for associations that can shadow the transnational activities of capital, render its globalist designs intelligible and enable local groups to organise resistance to its arrogation of local legal and political powers. This type of associational activity warrants some kind of linguistic distinction from globalisation. This is the reason for my use of "translocal" in preference to "global". The global is an ideal space, something that it is transnational capitalism's dream and intent to saturate in the sense of market maximisation. Some theorists, such as Appadurai, use the term globalisation to cover a range of transterritorial phenomena as different as cultural and capital flows and diaspora (Bartalovich 27). Yet if globalisation is not a monological process, it may be useful to make heuristic distinctions between types of transterritorial relationships. The anti-globalisation movement's more restricted definition depicts globalisation as a particular mode of economic imperialism based on creating spaces of elite domination that span the globe. This has the advantage of always reminding us that this kind of transterritorial activity is part of an ideological project that transfers economic and political power from local agents to supraterritorial bodies: transnational corporations and international economic organisations. Translocal connectivity is not concerned with the creation of global or homogenous spaces but with the voluntary convergence of autonomous (in the sense of making their own decisions) and diverse individuals and groups around issues of shared interest. It is not a threat, but a complement to local agency. The globalisation of markets is not yet perfected, despite corporate designs of world domination and bids by IEOs to establish the legal framework to make this possible. It makes sense to enlist the convivial qualities of the Net in a translocal associational movement that is actually aimed at halting the realisation of global capitalist space, and at a contrary re-empowering of local places and actors.
It is tempting to conflate the formal characteristics of a medium with the kind of communicative activity that takes place through that medium. Shifts in modes of information storage and transmission, such as the development of printing or of computer-mediated communication, certainly shape the ways in which knowledge is available to inform practices. However, the Internet is a new medium and while it is clear that it is facilitating a huge increase in translocal communication, it is currently hard to generalise about the overall social effects of this shift. At this stage, grandiose utopian and dystopian claims about the networking of information are premature, if provocative. The Net is used by different people to pursue different ends. Its future depends upon social factors such as the amount of power over online activity which can be garnered by corporations, governments, individuals, and communities.
However, this does not mean that we should downplay the impact of the formal characteristics of the Net on already existing forms of activity. They are being used strategically by activists and others who find them convivial to projects at hand. Perhaps there is an analogy with the rise of print. While in the longer term, the purely formal characteristics of print have allowed a certain kind of technological society to develop, early printed books were one of the decisive means by which the Reformation spread, with Luther himself being the first best-selling author of the print world (Anderson 39). Print did not cause the Reformation. There were obviously other social factors involved. But it did facilitate the spread of a certain strain of radical thought through Europe. The dissemination of social radicalism always takes place relative to media access. Newspapers and magazines, for instance, were the "magic media" of nineteenth and early twentieth century revolutionaries (Waterman 20).
I hope that the Internet provides a public sphere for social activists (including academics) around the world to disseminate knowledge and further the solidarities that may break the hegemony of neoliberalism. As Walch argues, the current outbreaks of associational politics must be attributed to historical conditions, such as the contraction of state welfare, the dire suffering of millions of people in debt-ridden countries, the move by corporations to expand markets globally regardless of social and environmental costs, and the role of governments and international organisations in supporting this project by enshrining it in international pro-free trade laws. However, such shameful social conditions cannot be separated from awareness of them and from awareness of the underlying system that produces them - and this is what the Net is helping to increase as it is put to use by activists and citizens as a means of exposé, debate and mobilisation.
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