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Facebook adds hosting, shopping features, and pricing tiers to WhatsApp Business

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Facebook has been making a big play to be a go-to partner for small and medium businesses that use the internet to interface with the wider world, and its messaging platform WhatsApp, with some 50 million businesses and 175 million people messaging them (and more than 2 billion users overall), has been a central part of that pitch.

Now, the company is making three big additions to WhatsApp to fill out that proposition.

It’s launching a way to shop for and pay for goods and services in WhatsApp chats; it’s going head to head with the hosting providers of the world with a new product called Facebook Hosting Services to host businesses’ online assets and activity; and — in line with its expanding product range — Facebook said it will finally start to charge companies using WhatsApp for Business.

Facebook announced the news in a short blog post light on details. We have reached out to the company for more information on pricing, availability of the services, and whether Facebook will provide hosting itself or work with third parties, and we will update this post as we learn more.

Here is what we know for now:

In-chat Shopping. Companies are already using WhatsApp to present product information and initiate discussions for transactions. One of the more recent developments in that area was the addition of QR codes and the ability to share catalog links in chats, added in July. At the same time, Facebook has been expanding the ways that businesses can display what they are selling on Facebook and Instagram, most recently with the launch in August of Facebook Shop, following a similar product roll out on Instagram before that.

Today’s move sounds like a new way for businesses in turn to use WhatsApp both to link through to those Facebook-native catalogs, as well as other products, and then purchase items, while still staying in the chat.

At the same time, Facebook will be making it possible for merchants to add “buy” buttons in other places that will take shoppers to WhatsApp chats to complete the purchase. “We also want to make it easier for businesses to integrate these features into their existing commerce and customer solutions,” it notes. “This will help many small businesses who have been most impacted in this time.”

Although Facebook is not calling this WhatsApp Pay, it seems that this is the next step ahead for the company’s ambitions to bring payments into the chat flow of its messaging app. That has been a long and winding road for the company, which finally launched WhatsApp Payments, using Facebook Pay, in Brazil, in June of this year only to have it shut down by regulators for failing to meet their requirements. (The plan has been to expand it to India, Indonesia and Mexico next.)

Facebook Hosting Services: No! This is not about Facebook taking on AWS. Or… not yet at least? The idea here appears that it is specifically aimed at selling hosting services to the kind of SMBs who already use Facebook and WhatsApp messaging, who either already use hosting services for their online assets, whether that be their online stores or other things, or are finding themselves now needing to for the first time, now that business is all about being “online.”

This is a very interesting move, since the SMB hosting market is pretty fragmented with a number of companies, including the likes of GoDaddy, Dream Host, HostGator, BlueHost and many others also offering these services. That fragmentation spells opportunity for a huge company like Facebook with a global profile, a burgeoning amount of connections through to other online services for these SMBs, and a pretty extensive network of data centers around the world that it’s built for itself and can now use to provide services to others — which is, indeed, a pretty strong parallel with how Amazon and AWS have done business.

Facebook already has an “app store” of sorts of partners it works with to provide marketing and related services to businesses using its platform. It looks like it plans to expand this, and will sell the hosting alongside all of that, with the kicker that hosting natively on Facebook will speed up how everything works.

“Providing this option will make it easier for small and medium size businesses to get started, sell products, keep their inventory up to date, and quickly respond to messages they receive – wherever their employees are,” it notes.

Charging tiers: As you would expect, to encourage more adoption, Facebook has not been charging for WhatsApp Business up to now, but with more services coming into the mix, and businesses tying their fates more securely to how well they are performing on Facebook’s platforms, it’s not surprise to see Facebook converting that into a play to pay.

Frustratingly, there seems so far to be no detail on which services will be charged, nor how much, nor when, so this is more of a warning than a new requirement.

“We will charge business customers for some of the services we offer, which will help WhatsApp continue building a business of our own while we provide and expand free end-to-end encrypted text, video and voice calling for more than two billion people,” it notes.

For those who might find that annoying, on the plus side, for those who are concerned about an ever-encroaching data monster, it will, at the least, help WhatsApp and Facebook continue to stick to its age-old commitment to stay away from advertising as a business model.

Doubling-down on SMBs

The new services come at a time when Facebook is doubling down on providing services for businesses, spurred in no small part by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven physical retailers and others to close their actual doors, shifting their focus to using the internet and mobile services to connect with and sell to customers.

Citing that very trend, last month the company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the Facebook Business Suite, bringing together all of the tools it has been building for companies to better leverage Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp profiles both to advertise themselves as well as communicate with and sell to customers. And the fact that Sandberg was leading the announcement says something about how Facebook is prioritizing this: it’s striking while the iron is hot with companies using its platform, but it sees/hopes that business services can a key way to diversify its business model while also helping buffer it — since many businesses building Pages may also advertise.

Facebook has also been building more functionality across Facebook and Instagram specifically aimed at helping power users and businesses leverage the two in a more efficient way. Adding in more tools to WhatsApp is the natural progression of all of this.

To be sure, as we pointed out earlier this year, even while there is a lot of very informal use of WhatsApp by businesses all around the world, WhatsApp Business remains a fairly small product, most popular in India and Brazil. Facebook launching more tools for how to use it will potentially drive more business not just in those markets but help the company convert more businesses to using it in other places, too.

Smaller businesses have been on Facebook’s radar for a while now. Even before the pandemic hit, in many cases retailers or restaurants do not have websites of their own, opting for a Facebook Page or Instagram Profile as their URL and primary online interface with the world; and even when they do have standalone sites, they are more likely to update people and spread the word about what they are doing on social media than via their own URLs.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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GDPR enforcement must level up to catch big tech, report warns

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A new report by European consumer protection umbrella group Beuc, reflecting on the barriers to effective cross-border enforcement of the EU’s flagship data protection framework, makes awkward reading for the regional lawmakers and regulators as they seek to shape the next decades of digital oversight across the bloc.

Beuc’s members filed a series of complaints against Google’s use of location data in November 2018 — but some two years on from raising privacy concerns there’s been no resolution of the complaints.

The tech giant continues to make billions in ad revenue, including by processing and monetize Internet users’ location data. Its lead data protection supervisor, under GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism for dealing with cross-border complaints, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC), did finally open an investigation in February this year.

But it could still be years before Google faces any regulatory action in Europe related to its location tracking.

This is because Ireland’s DPC has yet to issue any cross-border GDPR decisions, some 2.5 years after the regulation started being applied. (Although, as we reported recently, a case related to a Twitter data breach is inching towards a result in the coming days.)

By contrast, France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, was able to complete a GDPR investigation into the transparency of Google’s data processing in much quicker order last year.

This summer French courts also confirmed the $57M fine it issued, slapping down Google’s appeal.

But the case predated Google coming under the jurisdiction of the DPC. And Ireland’s data regulator has to deal with a disproportionate number of multinational tech companies, given how many have established their EU base in the country.

The DPC has a major backlog of cross-border cases, with more than 20 GDPR probes involving a number of tech companies including Apple, Facebook/WhatsApp and LinkedIn. (Google has also been under investigation in Ireland over its adtech since 2019.)

This week the EU’s internet market commissioner, Thierry Breton, said regional lawmakers are well aware of enforcement “bottlenecks” in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

He suggested the Commission has learned lessons from this friction — claiming it will ensure similar concerns don’t affect the future working of a regulatory proposal related to data reuse that he was out speaking in public to introduce.

The Commission wants to create standard conditions for rights-respecting reuse of industrial data across the EU, via a new Data Governance Act (DGA), which proposes similar oversight mechanisms as are involved in the EU’s oversight of personal data — including national agencies monitoring compliance and a centralized EU steering body (which they’re planning to call the European Data Innovation Board as a mirror entity to the European Data Protection Board).

The Commission’s ambitious agenda for updating and expanding the EU’s digital rules framework, means criticism of GDPR risks taking the shine off the DGA before the ink has dried on the proposal document — putting pressure on lawmakers to find creative ways to unblock GDPR’s enforcement “bottleneck”. (Creative because national agencies are responsibility for day to day oversight, and Member States are responsible for resourcing DPAs.) 

In an initial GDPR review this summer, the Commission praised the regulation as a “modern and horizontal piece of legislation” and a “global reference point” — claiming it’s served as a point of inspiration for California’s CCPA and other emerging digital privacy frameworks around the world.

But they also conceded GDPR enforcement is lacking.

The best answer to this concern “will be a decision from the Irish data protection authority about important cases”, the EU’s justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, said in June.

Five months later European citizens are still waiting.

Beuc’s report — which it’s called The long and winding road: Two years of the GDPR: A cross-border data protection case from a consumer perspective — details the procedural obstacles its member organizations have faced in seeking to obtain a decision related to the original complaints, which were filed with a variety of DPAs around the EU.

This includes concerns of the Irish DPC making unnecessary “information and admissibility checks”; as well as rejecting complaints brought by an interested organization on the grounds they lack a mandate under Irish law, because it does not allow for third party redress (yet the Dutch consumer organization had filed the complaint under Dutch law which does…).

The report also queries why the DPC chose to open an own volition enquiry into Google’s location data activities (rather than a complaint-led enquiry) — which Beuc says risks a further delay to reaching a decision on the complaints themselves.

It further points out that the DPC’s probe of Google only looks at activity since February 2020 not November 2018 when the complaints were made — meaning there’s a missing chunk of Google’s location data processing that’s not even being investigated yet.

It notes that three of its member organizations involved in the Google complaints had considered applying for a judicial review of the DPC’s decision (NB: others have resorted to that route) — but they decided not to proceed in part because of the significant legal costs it would have entailed.

The report also points out the inherent imbalance of GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism shifting the administration of complaints to the location of companies under investigation — arguing they therefore benefit from “easier access to justice” (vs the ordinary consumer faced with undertaking legal proceedings in a different country and (likely) language).

“If the lead authority is in a country with tradition in ‘common law’, like Ireland, things can become even more complex and costly,” Beuc’s report further notes.

Another issue it raises is the overarching one of rights complaints having to fight what it dubs ‘a moving target’ — given well-resourced tech companies can leverage regulatory delays to (superficially) tweak practices, greasing continued abuse with misleading PR campaigns. (Something Beuc accuses Google of doing.)

DPAs must “adapt their enforcement approach to intervene more rapidly and directly”, it concludes.

“Over two years have passed since the GDPR became applicable, we have now reached a turning point. The GDPR must finally show its strength and become a catalyst for urgently needed changes in business practices,” Beuc goes on in a summary of its recommendations. “Our members experience and that of other civil society organisations, reveals a series of obstacles that significantly hamper the effective application of the GDPR and the correct functioning of its enforcement system.

BEUC recommends to the relevant EU and national authorities to make a comprehensive and joint effort to ensure the swift enforcement of the rules and improve the position of data subjects and their representing organisations, particularly in the framework of cross-border enforcement cases.”

We reached out to the Commission and the Irish DPC with questions about the report. But at the time of writing neither had responded. We’ve also asked Google for comment.

Beuc earlier sent a list of eight recommendations for “efficient” GDPR enforcement to the Commission in May.

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Equity Dive: Edtech’s 2020 wakeup call

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week, we’re doing a first-ever for the show and taking a deep dive into one specific sector: Edtech.

Natasha Mascarenhas has covered education technology since Stanford first closed down classes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the wake of the historic shuttering of much of the United States’ traditional institutions of education, the sector has formed new unicorns, attracted record-breaking venture capital totals, and most of all, enjoyed time in a long-overdue spotlight.

For this Equity Dive, we zero into one part of that conversation: Edtech’s impact on higher education. We brought together Udacity co-founder and Kitty Hawk CEO Sebastian Thrun, Eschaton founder and college drop-out Ian Dilick, and Cowboy Ventures investor Jomayra Herrera to answer our biggest questions.

Here’s what we got into:

  • How the state of remote school is leading to gap years among students
  • A framework for how to think of higher education’s main three products (including which is most defensible over time)
  • What learnings we can take from this COVID-19 experiment on remote schooling to apply to the future
  • Why ed-tech is flocking to the notion of life-long learning
  • And the reality of who self-paced learning serves — and who it leaves out

And much, much more. If you celebrate, thank you for spending part of your Thanksgiving with the Equity crew. We’re so thankful to have this platform and audience, and it means a ton that y’all tune in each week.

Finally, if you liked this format and want to see more, feel free to tweet us your thoughts or leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Talk soon!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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TikTok’s epic rise and stumble

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TikTok’s rise in the West is unprecedented for any Chinese tech company, and so is the amount of attention it has attracted from politicians worldwide. Below is a timeline of how TikTok grew from what some considered another “copycat” short video app to global dominance and eventually became a target of the U.S. government.

2012-2017: The emergence of TikTok

These years were a period of fast growth for ByteDance, the Beijing-based parent company behind TikTok. Originally launched in China as Douyin, the video-sharing app quickly was wildly successful in its domestic market before setting its sights on the rest of the world. 

2012 

Zhang Yiming, a 29-year-old serial engineer, establishes ByteDance in Beijing.

2014

Chinese product designer Alex Zhu launches Musical.ly.

2016

ByteDance launches Douyin, which is regarded by many as a Musical.ly clone. It launches Douyin’s overseas version TikTok later that year.

2017-2019: TikTok takes off in the United States

TikTok merges with Musical.ly and and launches in the U.S., where it quickly becomes popular, the first social media app from a Chinese tech company to achieve that level of success there. But at the same time, its ownership leads to questions about national security and censorship, against the backdrop of the U.S.-China tariff wars and increased scrutiny of Chinese tech companies (including Huawei and ZTE) under the Trump administration.

2017

November

ByteDance buys Musical.ly for $800 million to $1 billion. (link)

2018

August

TikTok merges with Musical.ly and becomes available in the U.S. (link)

October

TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube in downloads. (link)

November

Facebook launches TikTok rival Lasso. (link)

2019

February

TikTok reaches one billion installs on the App Store and Google Play. (link)

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission fines TikTok $5.7 million over violation of children privacy law. (link)

May

TikTok tops the App Store for the fifth quarter in a row. (link)

September

TikTok is found censoring topics considered sensitive by the Beijing government. (link)

October

TikTok bans political ads (link) but does not appear to take action on hashtags related to American politics. (link)

TikTok taps corporate law firm K&L Gates for advice on content moderation in the U.S. (link)

U.S. lawmakers ask intelligence chief Joseph Maguire to investigate if TikTok poses a threat to national security. (link)

TikTok says it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and would not do so if asked. (link)

November

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly opens a national security probe into TikTok. (link)

Instagram launches TikTok rival Reels. (link)

TikTok apologizes for removing a viral video about abuses against Uighurs. (link)

December

The U.S. Navy reportedly bans TikTok. (link)

The first half of 2020: Growth amid government scrutiny

The app is now a mainstay of online culture in America, especially among Generation Z, and its user base has grown even wider as people seek diversions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But TikTok faces an escalating series of government actions, creating confusion about its future in America. 

A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing

A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing on Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

2020

January

Revived Dubsmash grows into TikTok’s imminent rival. (link)

March

TikTok lets outside experts examine its moderation practices at its “transparency center.” (link)

Senators introduce a bill to restrict the use of TikTok on government devices. (link)

TikTok brings in outside experts to craft content policies. (link)

April

TikTok introduces parental controls. (link)

TikTok tops two billion downloads. (link)

June

TikTok discloses how its content recommendation system works. (link)

YouTube launches TikTok rival. (link)

July

Facebook shuts down TikTok rival Lasso. (link)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is looking to ban TikTok. (link)

TikTok announced a $200 million fund for U.S. creators. (link)

Trump told reporters he will use executive power to ban TikTok. (link)

The second half of 2020: TikTok versus the U.S. government

After weeks of speculation, Trump signs an executive order in August against ByteDance. ByteDance begins seeking American buyers for TikTok, but the company also fights the executive order in court. A group of TikTok creators also file a lawsuit challenging the order. The last few months of 2020 become a relentless, and often confusing, flurry of events and new developments for TikTok observers, with no end in sight. 

August

Reports say ByteDance agrees to divest TikTok’s U.S. operations and Microsoft will take over. (link)

Trump signals opposition to the ByteDance-Microsoft deal. (link)

Microsoft announces discussions about the TikTok purchase will complete no later than September 15. (link)

Trump shifts tone and says he expects a cut from the TikTok sale. (link)

TikTok broadens fact-checking partnerships ahead of the U.S. election. (link)

August 7: In the most significant escalation of tensions between the U.S. government and TikTok, Trump signs an executive order banning “transactions” with ByteDance in 45 days, or on September 20. (link). TikTok says the order was “issued without any due process” and would risk “undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law.” (link)

August 9: TikTok reportedly plans to challenge the Trump administration ban. (link)

Oracle is also reportedly bidding for the TikTok sale. (link)

August 24: TikTok and ByteDance file their first lawsuit in federal court against the executive order, naming President Trump, Secretary of State Wilbur Ross and the U.S. Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit seeks to prevent the government from banning TikTok. Filed in U.S. District Court Central District of California (case number 2:20-cv-7672), it claims Trump’s executive order is unconstitutional.  (link)

TikTok reaches 100 million users in the U.S. (link)

August 27: TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigns after 100 days. (link)

Kevin Mayer (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Walmart says it has expressed interest in teaming up with Microsoft to bid for TikTok. (link)

August 28: China’s revised export laws could block TikTok’s divestment. (link)

September

China says it would rather see TikTok shuttered than sold to an American firm. (link)

September 13: Oracle confirms it is part of a proposal submitted by ByteDance to the Treasury Department in which Oracle will serve as the “trusted technology provider.” (link)

September 18: The Commerce Department publishes regulations against TikTok that will take effect in two phases. The app will no longer be distributed in U.S. app stores as of September 20, but it gets an extension on how it operates until November 12. After that, however, it will no longer be able to use internet hosting services in the U.S., rendering it inaccessible.  (link)

On the same day as the Commerce Department’s announcement, two separate lawsuits are filed against Trump’s executive order against TikTok. One is filed by ByteDance, while the other is by three TikTok creators.

The one filed by TikTok and ByteDance is in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (case number 20-cv-02658), naming President Trump, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the Commerce Department as defendants. It is very similar to the suit ByteDance previously filed in California. TikTok and ByteDance’s lawyers argue that Trump’s executive order violates the Administrative Procedure Act, the right to free speech, and due process and takings clauses.

The other lawsuit, filed by TikTok creators Douglas Marland, Cosette Rinab and Alec Chambers, also names the president, Ross and the Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (case number 2:20-cv-04597), argues that Trump’s executive order “violates the first and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and exceeds the President’s statutory authority.”

September 19: One day before the September 20 deadline that would have forced Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores, the Commerce Department extends it by a week to September 27. This is reportedly to give ByteDance, Oracle and Walmart time to finalize their deal.

On the same day, Marland, Rinab and Chambers, the three TikTok creators, file their first motion for a preliminary injunction against Trump’s executive order. They argue that the executive order violates freedom of speech and deprives them of “protected liberty and property interests without due process,” because if a ban goes into effect, it would prevent them from making income from TikTok-related activities, like promotional and branding work.

September 20: After filing the D.C. District Court lawsuit against Trump’s executive order, TikTok and ByteDance formally withdraw their similar pending suit in the U.S. District Court of Central District of California.

September 21: ByteDance and Oracle confirm the deal but send conflicting statements over TikTok’s new ownership. TikTok is valued at an estimated $60 billion. (link)

September 22: China’s state newspaper says China won’t approve the TikTok sale, labeling it “extortion.” (link)

September 23: TikTok and ByteDance ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to grant a preliminary injunction against the executive order, arguing that the September 27 ban removing TikTok from app stores will “inflict direct, immediate, and irreparable harm on Plaintiffs during the pendency of this case.” (link)

September 26: U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone denies Marland, Rinab and Chambers’ motion for a preliminary injunction against the executive order, writing that the three did not demonstrate “they will suffer immediate, irreparable harm if users and prospective users cannot download or update” TikTok after September 27, since they will still be able to use the app.

September 27: Just hours before the TikTok ban was set to go into effect, U.S. District Court Judge Carl J. Nichols grants ByteDance’s request for a preliminary injunction while the court considers whether the app poses a risk to national security. (link)

September 29: TikTok launches a U.S. election guide in the app. (link)

October

comedian Sarah Cooper's page is displayed on the TikTok app

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 07: In this photo illustration, comedian Sarah Cooper’s page is displayed on the TikTok app. (Photo Illustration by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Snapchat launches a TikTok rival. (link)

TikTok says it’s enforcing actions against hate speech. (link)

TikTok partners with Shopify on social commerce (link)

October 13: After failing to win their first request for a preliminary injunction, TikTok creators Marland, Rinab and Chambers file a second one. This time, their request focuses on the Commerce Department’s November 12 deadline, which they say will make it impossible for users to access or post content on TikTok if it goes into effect.

October 30: U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone grants TikTok creators Marland, Chambers and Rinab’s second request for a preliminary injunction against the TikTok ban. (link)

November

November 7: After five days of waiting for vote counts, Joe Biden is declared the president-elect by CNN, followed by the AP, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox News. With Biden set to be sworn in as president on January 20, the future of Trump’s executive order against TikTok becomes even more uncertain.

November 10: ByteDance asks the federal appeal court to vacate the U.S. government’s divestiture order that would force it to sell the app’s American operations by November 12. Filed as part of the lawsuit in D.C. District Court, ByteDance said it asked the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States for an extension, but hadn’t been granted one yet. (link)

November 12: This is the day that the Commerce Department’s ban on transactions with ByteDance, including providing internet hosting services to TikTok (which would stop the app from being able to operate in the U.S.), was set to go into effect. But instead the case becomes more convoluted as the U.S. government sends mixed messages about TikTok’s future.

The Commerce Department says it will abide by the preliminary injunction granted on October 30 by Judge Beetlestone, pending further legal developments. But, around the same time, the Justice Department files an appeal against Beetlestone’s ruling. Then Judge Nichols sets new deadlines (December 14 and 28) in the D.C. District Court lawsuit (the one filed by ByteDance against the Trump administration) for both sides to file motions and other new documents in the case. (link)

November 25: The Trump administration grants ByteDance a seven-day extension of the divestiture order. The deadline for ByteDance to finalize a sale of TikTok is now December 4.

This timeline will be updated as developments occur.

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