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Death Threats In the Blogosphere 487

Posted by kdawson
from the way-over-the-line dept.
Several readers have written in about the death threats and threats of sexual harm that have been directed at tech blogger Kathy Sierra. She is the author of a number of books about Java and a popular speaker at conferences. She has now stopped blogging and cancelled her appearance at eTech. She names the names of four prominent bloggers who are backers of two sites on which the threats were posted. Others in the blogosphere like Robert Scoble and Tim Bray have posted publicly in support of Sierra. Scoble in particular emphasizes the streak of misogyny that is still all too evident in the tech world. The Washington Post is also grappling with the issue of vile comment posts that flirt with illegality. One commenter on Bray's post summed it up: "The Internet used to be a university. Then it became a shopping mall. But now, it's a war zone."
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Death Threats In the Blogosphere

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  • PC Backlash (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Applekid (993327) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @01:37PM (#18503683)
    When you can't say intellectually controversial things in public, on TV, in print, or anywhere else that repressed need eventually bubbles out from somewhere. Unfortunately, when it's on the internet and self-authored and published, the respective screening (getting beat up, losing your license, reputation flushed down the toilet) leaves and we're left with a river of hateful slime.

    Like Ghostbusters 2. Only more serious. I suppose this makes this post controversial, as well.
  • by Friedrich Psitalon (777927) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @01:38PM (#18503689)
    While I respect anyone in the public limelight, I think Kathy is being a tad bit naive. As a mildly well-known member of a gaming community once upon a time, I came to realize that some people really do get their rocks off on simply making vile threats. (Yes, I know, the scale is very different, but the concept is much the same.)

    Odds are very poor that many of them are serious, and in the case of the incredibly slim few that are, most of them are so functionally disturbed that they wouldn't be able to make a trip to a convention anyhow. They're too worried about the peanut butter covering their sidewalk or the time cubes floating in front of the bus station.

    Part of being a celebrity on any level for any topic means accepting that you gain both fame and infamy in parts. Refusing to continue doing good because of the threat of others doing evil against you is (while perhaps the most understandable kind) simply cowardice.

    I'm a schoolteacher. I *KNOW* because I'm a teacher who connects with kids, and has a knack for reaching troubled kids that my odds of being the target of an angry, weapon-holding students are *GOOD*... someday, I'm going to stare at that terrifying situation. I still teach - I know that I do good things, and I will not live in fear of evil ones.

    Kathy should recognize that her acts do far more good than the risk of harm merits and go on. Courage of the unknown is a tough thing, but an important thing - it is what makes (most) of the greatest humans great.
  • by photomonkey (987563) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @01:44PM (#18503781)

    I read the posts suggesting ill of her, and find them disturbing, but childish and prankish.

    I feel really bad that she is "afraid to leave her yard", but that really only feeds into it. We all have the capacity for malicious action, but nearly none of us ever act on it. This seems like a 'who can be more extreme' pissing contest that went way too far.

    Unfortunately, this will probably only fan the flames for IDing each and everyone connected to the internet.

    I really do feel bad for her. I just don't think any of it was intended to become true, nor will any of it become true. Bullying exists across all demographics. It's just that once you grow up, you're not so afraid of losing your lunch money, so the threats become greater.

  • by LionKimbro (200000) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @01:44PM (#18503789) Homepage
    I'm a big fan of Kathy Sierra; I own several of her books, and have evangelized for her for a long time.

    But right now, I'm worried about mob "justice."

    I've seen that, several times, "Joey" has said, "This is a big misunderstanding," and "please, let's talk about this."

    The response? "We've seen all the evidence we need-- shut up, you're in big trouble."

    Have they seen all the evidence they "need?" Need, for what purpose? I agree that they've seen disturbing, gruesome pictures. But is it all connected up right? I'm not so sure-- did e-mailed death threats really come from Joey & Co.?

    But there is something that I'm sure of: Due process is not happening here. We're witnessing a dog pile. I'm sure that a great many of these people are hearing Kathy's story, seeing the pictures, and then calling "Get a rope."

    I read the story. It's disgusting. I know how the wanna-be vigilantes feel. But this is no way to do things, and I find the popular response disgusting, as well.

    If some of the people responsible are willing and ready to talk, and have a side of the story, it's everybody's duty to give it a fair hearing. We should be encouraging conversation right now, not discouraging it. I'm sure Kathy & Joey & all can have a conversation, and work this out, and make a follow-up announcement.
  • by CAIMLAS (41445) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @01:51PM (#18503923) Homepage
    The first thing I thought of when reading this was, "how are these people making the threats any different than the people issuing fatwahs against 'enemies of Islam'? I thought of a friend blogger, Anarchangel, who's had a fatwah [blogspot.com] issued against him.

    His solution? Tell 'em off and make it known he's packing pistols. Over a year later and he's fine. I'd suggest she do the same, for her own safety. And don't back down, for goodness sake! That's what they're after - terroristic behavior is done to make you back down and give ground.

    Apparently there are some folks out there who really don't like Java. I mean, I dislike the damn stuff myself, but I'm not crazy about it or anything...
  • This is new? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Penguinisto (415985) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @01:53PM (#18503957) Journal
    I remember getting quite a share of death threats and hate mail from lots of folks back in the mid-and-late '90s. It came with the territory when playing around in alt.flame and trolling other USENET groups for fun... back when trolling was actually an artform (and even educational if you did it right)- not the crude and obvious idiocy that we see today. Got lots of hate in my inbox as a result (and even more mailbombing attempts, etc etc... procmail was my bestest friend in those days...) IOW? Yeah, I was stupid.

    That said, the cure for such threats was rather easy: Post the thing verbatim, along with every ounce of information you could dig up on the person. Odds were good that a sharp admin could figure out who sent it, email the ISP (back when they actually paid attention to the inbox of abuse@...), and humiliate the punk online.

    Of course, back then, there were lots of advantages: it was easier to track people back then, and I'm a guy with a passion for hunting and target-shooting. I also lived in a state that had some very loose laws considering the disposition of trespassers and those who would threaten bodily harm to persons or property (Arkansas). A few simple public postings in the source's favorite newsgroups w/ all evidence, a letter to his/her ISP w/ all the evidence, and the threat-maker was gone. I had never seen anyone dumb enough to actually try for it, in spite of my (admittedly reckless habit of) publicly calling them out. Most simply went away and stayed gone. But it was a whole other Internet back then.

    I suspect that OTOH a woman, who doesn't really make a hobby of pissing people off like I had, and catching crap in an Internet that has now become swamped with a cornucopia of anonymizing tools and techniques? Prolly not so easy for her to simply post and humiliate.

    Props to her for posting them verbatim, though... and it's a very good start to name and shame the sources that can be found. Let the bloggers who host such stuff publicly deal with the fallout.

    Though this will sound trite, I'd take such postings with a block of salt... the vast, vast majority of idiots who post such garbage don't have the nerve, transportation, or means to pull off anything that they threaten. I daresay that they're little boys who managed to squeeze off something that makes them feel big n' bad when mommy wasn't looking at their monitor.

    /P

  • by unDees (116113) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @02:17PM (#18504433)
    Granted, mob justice is wrong and all, but I took most of the "shut up, Joey" comments to mean, "don't incriminate yourself (further)." Most of the comments on Kathy's blog didn't seem to be threatening retaliation. I don't remember seeing any remarks about a noose in Joey's size or anything.

    Is there any verification that the person who posted five or six times as "Joey" is the same one who originally posted the noose remark? He keeps changing his story ("I'm a poor retiree on a fixed income and can't afford a lawyer," "I have a bunch of money and I'm going to get a lawyer to clear my name -- it's worth it," etc.). He alleges several past flamewars between Kathy and her critics, but Google couldn't find 'em.
  • by canUbeleiveIT (787307) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @02:24PM (#18504591)
    Yes, she needs to regain some semblance of self. Based on the couple of comments I saw which were incredibly disgusting and uncalled for, I can see that she would be offended. But really. She needs to get a hold of herself. She calls it mysogyny because someone posts "fuck off you boring slut... i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob" on a couple of blogs? Is she new to the internet or something? Name a blog out there that hasn't had even worse repeatedly posted on them. Even directed toward specific individuals? Liberals, conservatives, religious people, atheists, people of different ethnicities and sizes and colors and shapes and views and backgrounds and opinions have things like that said to them online all the time. They don't immediately cancel all events and lock themselves in their home for fear of their life like this person claims she is doing.

    Good point. For example, there's some moron on /. that has a sig something to the effect of "be a patriot, murder a Republican." I doubt very seriously that most people who know him personally know that he's such a jackass. He would probably never suggest such a thing in person, much less act upon it.

    More than likely, these people who are tormenting this lady are the same: disturbed but impotent people hiding their rage within the anonymity of the web.
  • by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @02:29PM (#18504715) Journal
    I just have to wonder who the hell gets that worked up over an author of Java books for C's sake. I can't imagine having that strong an emotional response over a programming language. I wonder if this guy (I assume it is a guy) also gets that worked up over cordless drills. "Damn you Black & Decker scum!!"
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @02:29PM (#18504719)
    With respect, I think it's very easy to talk about what people should do in particular extreme circumstances (such as this one, but it's a general problem IMO) in situations which one has never personally experienced. For the first few years I was driving a car, I often wondered how I'd react if I got involved in an accident. The fact is that, as the cliche goes, you really don't know what it's like until you've experienced it, and I suspect that applies to lots of situations at various levels of trauma. (And as a man, you are pretty unlikely to experience rape or threats of rape.)

    (Incidentally I have been raped [and am a man], and whilst it was a pretty unpleasant experience in itself, it's the long-lasting psychological effects that have the potential to really fuck up your life. I'm doing pretty well now, 13 years later, thanks for asking :)

    (And no, it wasn't in prison!)

    Well golly gosh darn, now I have to post anonymously.

  • by Seumas (6865) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @02:33PM (#18504781)
    Exactly.

    Rather than be all about the glory of me every time someone has threatened me through my site or elsewhere and then posting it, commenting on it, asking for others in the community to defend me and stand up for me, I've kept my mouth shut, forwarded the offending emails or posts to the person's ISP with a letter of explanation, blocked the account and moved on with my life.

    I don't bother responding to the person. I don't post about it on the internet. I don't aim for Scoble or Slashdot to post about it. I don't look for the police to send a squad car over and post a man at my front door. And I've had far worse "threatened" than I am seeing in this story.

    Often - especially for repeat offenders - ISPs will be very helpful. Especially if you have documented as much as you can about an individual. Show the server logs with timestamps and IPs. Provide email addresses, message headers, post contents and any other information you happen to have (in my case, sometimes account information that they registered with that may or may not be accurate).

    But posting on the internet about it accomplishes nothing. If anything, it opens you up to more nut cases who know that you're a good target, because you'll freak out about it and give them the reaction they so desperately want.

    I know there are real criminals who really stalk people over the internet and then in person and commit real rape or murder. That's horrific and when it appears to be of that nature, by all means press forward and spare nothing in the effort. But to make this much out of some lame blog troll who says they wish harm to come to you followed by some gross sexual comment and then throws out a couple of lame photoshops (I believe I saw one with panties over a head - it's not like these were photoshops of a slit throat or anything if I'm correct?) kind of diminishes people who are legitimately being threatened over the net and have completely rational fears for their safety because of realistic threats by someone.
  • by radtea (464814) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @02:36PM (#18504835)
    Ever walk to your car in a dark parking lot? When you do, do you give thought to being attacked? I don't

    Well you should. Rates of male victimization for all crimes other than rape are considerably higher than female victimization. [usdoj.gov] The rate of rape in males is very hard to estimate, but is reported at about 1/4 of the rate in females. [cdc.gov] Given that males are much less likely than females to report themselves as victims of rape, it is quite possible that the rate of rape in males is comparable to that in females. It is certainly the case that rates of violent assault and murder are about four times higher in males than females.

    This is because we as a society do not care two figs about violence against males. We do not value our young males, and we do not teach them to take care of themselves. Quite the opposite: we teach them to be careless of their own safety, and we teach them they are cowards or worse if they take reasonable precautions like giving a thought to being attacked when walking to their car in a dark parking lot.

    This is not to say that violence against females is acceptable. It is obviously not. But any time I hear anyone decrying "violence against women" as being particularly bad I have to wonder if they think violence against men is OK? Or at least not so particularly bad? And if they do think that, I really have to wonder why. If they are even remotely decent and humane it certainly cannot be the fact that most violence is committed by men, because it is also the case that, for example, in the United States most violence is committed by black people, and there is a word for people who think that that fact makes violence against black people OK.
  • How do you know? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jythie (914043) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @02:39PM (#18504901)
    Seriously.

    I have heard plenty of women, including victims taking strength back, say similar to the above post.

    It should also be noted that males are the victims of violence too, by both males and females (though police still tend to laugh in the face of female->male abuse victims so they are kinda underreported). Rates of males being victims are still higher the female so in some ways males are more at risk (granted when it comes to sexual assaults, female rates are MUCH higher, same with harassment rates, though I have known males who were sexually harassed in the workplace).

    And while the previous poster was probably a bit more mocking then could be called for, I am seeing a disturbing amount of 'if you are not riding to this women's defense like a good white knight they you are insensitive!' group think. Which in some ways does more damage to the treatment of women in tech then the harassment. Just another way of looking down on them, treating them as 'lessers' that need protection and sympathy because the poor dears can not take care of themselves and need nice big strong men to protect them from the evil nasty other men.....

    Did the blogger overreact? Hard to say. She felt threatened enough that she does not feel safe outside her home. However, if these types of comments are really that common within this community (I have never heard of any of these sites so I can't comment there) and most who receive such slander do not react that way, then it would, by community standards, be an overreaction. It isn't a case of 'thicker skin' but of weighing the realities of risk.

    And finally, the statistics bit is a bit of a slippery slope. Ok, women are, statistically, smaller then males. But the same thing could be said of, say, black males to white males. So does that male white males easily victimized and they should feel constantly threatened and vigilant?

    As for your acquaintance... each person must cope their own way with trauma, but that really does not sound like a healthy reaction. If she is thinking about that event every time she rolls down her window that is obsessing on a mental injury and is a class of coping that usually does some long term harm. While understandable, dwelling on an assault is NOT a solution...

    *awaits the -1 flaimbait*
  • by Nimey (114278) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @02:44PM (#18505017) Homepage Journal

    The pistol is called the great equalizer for a reason.


    "I don't dial 911, I dial 1911." [wikipedia.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @03:00PM (#18505389)
    Err - maybe I'm missing something here. She is so frightened by the comments on her blog - that she has written a blog entry on the topic? It's nice that so many people have offered support and everything, this will probably help frighten the losers away, but this doesn't look to me like the actions of a frightened woman - it looks like the actions of someone cashing in on publicity (if you're American you might not get that, since it's so prevalent in America). She says...

    I have no idea if I'll ever post again. I suspect I will. But for now, I have a lot to rethink.
    Let's see how long it takes to rethink - oh!

    [UPDATE: In comments...
    That didn't take so long huh?

    This is a blog topic about a blog about comments on a blog. Navel gazing gone mad.

    And by the way, I'm glad she writes books on Java, I'm sure she never deserved any of it, and yes - they should be prosecuted.
  • by jahudabudy (714731) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @03:53PM (#18506353)
    An aspect of non-local culture (I like that phrase, by the way) that you might not have considered is the feed-back effect. Not only do the potential victims see things happening hundreds of miles away and fear for their own safety, potential perpetrators do as well. Copy-cat crimes have been around for some time; as national media make the rare localized sensational event a part of the national consciousness, EVERY potential copy cat is exposed to EVERY sensational crime. Bored, depressed, picked on at school? Get a gun and shoot people! Being the next headline will spice up your life! Somewhat ironically, the mere perception that these events are common could very easily lead to these events becoming common.
  • by BenEnglishAtHome (449670) * on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @04:40PM (#18507159)
    ...you either knew who was attacking you or had someone who's job it was to protect you...

    Nope. Only in the two cases where I was assigned a bodyguard did I know who the attackers were before they struck.

    I can identify with where you're coming from. I am, however, qualified based on experience to judge these things. For a number of years, my job involved going to places that were just an address on a piece of paper to look for someone who didn't want to be found, tell them things they didn't want to hear, and make them do things they didn't want to do. I did this alone, without backup, before 'net access, when cell phones were too expensive to issue to peons like me, without any forwarning if the person I was looking for was a doper, a felon, or just some nice guy who had screwed up. I knocked on the doors of crack houses, got chased by packs of feral dogs (Being a big, fat guy, I was proud of the way I learned to climb atop my car in the blink of an eye), got cornered by a drunk in a auto shop who spent the entire conversation swinging a giant wrench casually at his side, and once was held hostage for four hours by a mentally ill vagrant. (Frankly, I was too good for my own good at finding people who didn't really need to be found.)

    Here's my point: Evil, stupid, violent people can intrude on your existence at any time. In any reasonably large group (say, the parents in the stands at your kids Little League game, or even the Sunday morning worship assembly) there is a statistical certainty that some of those people within a hundred yards of you are nuts and would kill you under the right circumstances. Example? I was once attacked, not on the job this time, at a Heart concert by a doper. His excuse was "He was looking at me." There are nuts everywhere. You don't even have to be in a crowd. You can be an innocent preteen girl sitting in a one-room schoolhouse in about the safest, most religious little farming community to be found - there's still the danger of a nut-job intent on committing mass rape busting in, tying you up, and blowing you away when his plan to force you to have sex is interrupted.

    There are nut jobs out there. You can't change the way you live your life because of them. You have to rationally understand that your chances of actually being hurt are miniscule and then go on with your life. Everyone should be aware of their circumstances, of course, but constant, numbing worry on this topic is just wrong.

    If this woman is just figuring out that there are nuts around, that she may unexpectedly be attacked by some person previously unknown to her, then I have to say she's led a sheltered life. I'm sorry the realization has been so tough on her. I can forgive her for hiding for a while to get her head together; a break in your world view certainly calls for a pause to reconsider things. But I stand by my earlier statement; if she's still afraid to leave her yard next week, she's got a problem over and above (and, in reality, more serious than) these threats.

  • Re:Damn kids... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by daigu (111684) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @06:12PM (#18508503) Journal

    I assume you were posting things on FreeRepublic that would be counter to the perspective of that forum - liberal, democratic or whatever. I do have a question for you: what is the attraction?

    I subscribe to The Nation [thenation.com]. I read its blog posts and the commentary of posts I think are interesting - just like Slashdot. I find that there is a sizable contingent (maybe as much as a quarter?) that basically trolls the boards offering libertarian, conservative, and other perspectives that differ significantly from the general perspective of The Nation and its readers. What I cannot figure out is - why?

    I would never think of spending time reading blog posts from the Free Republic, National Review, Washington Monthly, Townhall.com or other conservative sites. Maybe an article here or there when I'm looking for different perspectives on a particular issue or an issue of these magazines when I am trying to understand what issues seem to be top of mind for conservatives. But I would never read blog posts or commentary - or troll those forums.

    Why did you do it? Did you think you would change people's minds? Were you trying to get people's goat? What motivated you?

    It seems to me that participating in forums where you don't agree with the thrust of the forum - whether it be an issue (Luddites posting to Slashdot, gun control advocates on NRA sites or whatever) or political philosophy - is a huge waste of time. Yet, it seems like no matter what forum you choose - someone is doing it. Why? Any insight?

  • Re:hmm (Score:3, Interesting)

    by smellsofbikes (890263) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @06:36PM (#18508781) Journal
    You are so right. I have (apparently) a hobby of dating hyperintelligent women -- I'm talking PhD at age 23, perfect SAT, Harvard grad, those types. Routinely, they've made some simply appallingly bad decisions. While I'm at it, my dad, perfect SAT, engineering degree from CalTech, plus Master's, in four years: same thing, so it's not just a superintelligent *woman* thing.
    49 times in a row they'd have disagreements with someone else and be right, so that 50th time, when they were wrong, they seemed to actually be incapable of realizing they were wrong, so the opposition from friends and coworkers didn't have the limiting effect it has on most more normal people.
    What's weird is that this kind of behavior is usually associated with people who aren't very bright at all. Typically, brighter-than-average people are better at self-analysis, self-doubt, and anticipating (and, more crucially, planning for) failure. I'm three-sigma on the intelligence tests, but I screw up ALL the time. I sometimes think I'm flat-out wrong as often as I'm right. So, I never *trust* anything I decide: I spend a lot of time verifying and making sure I have back-up plans. But the five-sigma people I've known? dude. Like riding an express train to hell.
    So, I'd add to your statement that part of wisdom is self-doubt and self-evaluation: the ability to analyze your analysis and be open to criticism even if it's almost always wrong.
  • by cyranoVR (518628) * <cyranoVR@gmail . c om> on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @08:58PM (#18510139) Homepage Journal
    A few years ago, I started receiving death threats on my Slashdot journal. After several emails to Taco, which were ignored, he finally responding saying that there was nothing I should do and that I should just ignore them.

    I wonder if he would give the same advice to Kathy Sierra?

    Links:

    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=102543&cid=874 9281 [slashdot.org]
    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=102942&cid=879 0160 [slashdot.org]
    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=102942&cid=876 9738 [slashdot.org]
    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=103078&cid=878 1756 [slashdot.org]

    Granted, no one photo-shopped pictures of me to have a noose next to my head, but a death threat is a death threat. Taco had the opportunity to take action, and he chose not to.
  • by BorgCopyeditor (590345) on Tuesday March 27, 2007 @11:52PM (#18511255)
    She advocates being a woman in public. That's still too much for some people to put up with.
  • by dscruggs (858714) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @12:18AM (#18511403) Homepage
    She strikes me as someone who desperately wants attention. But attention has its downsides too.

    Here's the deal. I happen to know Kathy Sierra pretty well - she's on the advisory board for my company and until recently lived only a mile away from me.

    More disclosure: Chris Locke lives a block away from me. We used to go out for lunch every now and then, though it's been at least a couple years.

    IMO Kathy does not "desperately want attention." What she wants is to write about passionate users. How controversial is that? It's not like she's writing about the Iraq War or abortion or the Second Amendment. She writes computer books, for crying out loud. And for that she gets death threats?!

    I have no idea if what she says about Chris Locke and others is actually true. But I do know that she 1) believes it to be true and 2) has good evidence to back it up. I know this because she called me Sunday to ask a few questions and shared her reasoning with me.

    I've never known Kathy to be scared or unreasonable about anything. Her writing is terrific and she does terrific presentations (she keynoted South by Southwest a couple weeks ago). That carries a lot of weight in my world.

    Conversely, Chris Locke has a reputation for being, to put it politely, edgy. It may be that he did something that was misinterpreted. But as others have noted on this thread, it should not shock you that a women might feel more vulnerable than a man when she gets the kind of threats and comments she quoted in her post.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @04:43AM (#18512719)
    The GP has a good point, though; he never said it was EASY, just that it was NECESSARY. I'm a victim of sexual abuse myself (and I'm male, too, FWIW); I've suppressed it and let it control me for the longest time, and it's only now that I'm in therapy that I'm finally starting to get over it. If there's one thing I've learnt, then it is that how you react doesn't just make a difference, it makes ALL the difference. And it doesn't even matter whether you're ultimately successful; what matters is trying and not letting yourself get taken over by fear, dread and all that. It's not easy, no, but it's the only thing you can do if you want to emerge as a sane person.

    Eh, looks like i have to post anonymously now, too. I didn't originally intend to, but it's amazing how difficult it can be to talk about these things even now. Anonymity at least makes me a bit more comfortable doing so.

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