Free Speech: Was it a Bad Idea?

 

mark-zuckerberg-headshotFor the sake of argument, let’s not have the argument about whether the EU itself is a bad idea right now. Mentally replace the words “EU Commission” with “a group of European countries that finds it expedient at times to negotiate as a single country.” That will keep us focused.

Here’s the press release:

The Commission together with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft (“the IT companies”) today unveil a code of conduct that includes a series of commitments to combat the spread of illegal hate speech online in Europe.

The IT Companies support the European Commission and EU Member States in the effort to respond to the challenge of ensuring that online platforms do not offer opportunities for illegal online hate speech to spread virally.  They share, together with other platforms and social media companies, a collective responsibility and pride in promoting and facilitating freedom of expression throughout the online world. However, the Commission and the IT Companies recognise that the spread of illegal hate speech online not only negatively affects the groups or individuals that it targets, it also negatively impacts those who speak out for freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination in our open societies and has a chilling effect on the democratic discourse on online platforms.

In order to prevent the spread of illegal hate speech, it is essential to ensure that relevant national laws transposing the Council Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia are fully enforced by Member States in the online as well as the in the offline environment. While the effective application of provisions criminalising hate speech is dependent on a robust system of enforcement of criminal law sanctions against the individual perpetrators of hate speech, this work must be complemented with actions geared at ensuring that illegal hate speech online is expeditiously reviewed by online intermediaries and social media platforms, upon receipt of a valid notification, in an appropriate time-frame. To be considered valid in this respect, a notification should not be insufficiently precise or inadequately substantiated.

I’m not sure how this story is related, or even if it’s related, but I note it:

A French Jewish youth group sued Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google over how they monitor hate speech on the web, highlighting the challenge — and potential costs — for Internet platforms to regulate user-generated content.

The lawsuit filed at a Paris court by the Jewish youth group called UEJF is seeking more clarity on who moderates social network posts and how it’s conducted. Together with an anti-racism and an anti-homophobia group, UEJF published a report earlier this month showing Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube deleted only a small number of posts flagged as hateful, threatening or promoting violence.

Points to consider:

We have some of the most powerful organizations in America helping foreign governments to suppress speech. Yes, they are private organizations, just like Ricochet, and what they choose to host on their property is none of our government’s business. In America. In principle.

But when do we ask ourselves, “Is the right to freedom of expression meaningful if these four private entities can control the vehicle by which almost all political speech and thought is now conveyed?” I submit to you that this is a question worth serious thought. The founders certainly understood the potential tyranny of an over-strong government. Did they give enough thought to the possibility of over-strong IT companies? Rhetorical question. They couldn’t have. So we’ll have to think this one through for ourselves, here in the 21st Century.

Holocaust denial is illegal in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and Switzerland. It’s not in America, obviously. Is your commitment to freedom of expression such that you think it should be legal for neo-Nazis and ISIS fanboys in America to spout off about killing Jews and infidels to their heart’s content? My answer is “Of course it should be.” We settled this one in 1977 in Skokie. (If your answer is “No,” stop here and explain why not.)

If your answer is “Yes,” do you believe that this is because it is self-evident that we’ve been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among them the right to say what we please? Or do you think this is just a contingent and practical American tradition?

If the latter, you can stop here. Makes things simple. But if your answer is the former (or something along natural law lines), do you think it applies to Europeans? If not, why not?

Do you think it’s possible for individual people to lose a human right because they are collectively responsible for a historic crime? Consider, in particular, Section 130 of the German Criminal Code. To the modern American ear, it sounds like the Barnard Faculty Lounge’s idea of paradise. It’s easy to be against it on principle. Until you remember how that law came into being.

In Holocaust Denial Legislation, Working Papers du Centre Perelman de philosophie du droit, 2008/3., J.D. Josephs surveys the origins and the arguments for and against laws criminalizing Holocaust denial. This is literally and metaphorically an academic debate; there is no chance of convincing anyone in Europe right now that these laws are a bad idea. Terrorism tends to make people think the idea of “natural rights” is a luxury and a frivolity. I leave it to you to read and consider the arguments on the “for” side.

These are the reasons he notes on the “against” side. First, there’s the principle of it:

The principle argument of those opposed to Holocaust denial legislation is entirely bound up with freedom of expression. It is one of the most fundamental freedoms of all in any truly democratic society, famously encapsulated in that well-known phrase attributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.

Second, and importantly, there’s the pragmatics of it:

In restricting freedom of speech to deny the Holocaust, it is argued, one is playing right into the hands of the deniers. The reasoning for this is the danger of unwittingly turning the Holocaust denier into martyr. Professor Evans, expert witness at the Irving v Lipstadt  trial, explained to the author that the publicity from Irving’s imprisonment in Vienna in 2005 made him “something of a martyr for freedom of speech, something Irving ‘had no interest in at all.’” This is what can be referred to as the popular-hated figure dilemma. It will boost the denier’s popularity, generating an interest in his words whilst exposing people to his deliberate falsehoods and lies. In the Irving v Lipstadt  case, the reverse was true. As unpopular a figure as David Irving was, he was the person accusing Lipstadt of libel. So there was no outpouring of public sympathy in Britain during or after the trial in his favour. In fact if anything precisely the opposite was true; one only had to read the next morning headlines for proof.

It is surely a paradox that David Irving, whilst calling for his freedom of speech to deny the Holocaust, went out of his way to suppress the freedom of speech of Deborah Lipstadt. However, many sectors of the public and press were very sympathetic to him upon his incarceration in Austria. As Lipstadt herself put it during the interview “when Irving was imprisoned in Austria, people who vehemently opposed him immediately sprang to his defence – some of them even asking me to do likewise.”

Furthermore, critics argue that by having such laws demonstrates a lack of confidence in historical truth. Making deniers important enough to warrant legislation, the argument goes, attributes to them a status they should not be entitled to. After all, as playwright George Bernard Shaw once put it: “martyrdom is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability.”

Je-suis-Dieudonne-800-copy

Dieudonné’s a vile anti-Semite. The last thing I feel like doing is vigorously defending his right to be one.

The pragmatic results of these bans may affect how I feel about the principle. It’s my experience that yes, making people into martyrs valorizes their disgusting opinions. This goes both for Holocaust deniers and other species of lunatic bigots.

But I just don’t know if I have the confidence to say, “Take the training wheels off, Europe. Nothing bad will happen.”

Do you feel entirely confident in saying, “Of course the Continent should mix its track record with the Internet, the political effects of which we don’t yet fully understand?”

Do you feel entirely confident in the moral wisdom of our IT companies?

Of one thing, I’m pretty sure. It’s a bad idea to announce that you feel “a collective responsibility and pride in promoting and facilitating freedom of expression throughout the online world” when you’re announcing the steps you plan to take to limit it. Why not say the truth? “We feel a collective responsibility and pride in promoting and facilitating some expressions, but not others.”

The arguments for this position are neither totally irrational nor disgraceful, and saying anything else is stupid. Promoting stupidity about a major point of political principle cultivates stupidity. I doubt it’s a good idea to make people more stupid.

***************

(I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell you what all of this means and how it’s relevant to you, but I’ll surely try or die trying.)

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  1. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Mentally replace the words “EU Commission” with “a group of European countries that finds it expedient at times to negotiate as a single country.”

    Why does it have to be a group of European countries?

    • #1
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Misthiocracy:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Mentally replace the words “EU Commission” with “a group of European countries that finds it expedient at times to negotiate as a single country.”

    Why does it have to be a group of European countries?

    It doesn’t, but it happens to be one.

    • #2
  3. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    I will read through all more carefully as time permits, but for now my first thoughts are:

    If we are at war with someone,.i.e. ISIS, then I am all for shutting down as much of their networking abilities as possible.

    As you note, different countries define hate speech differently. If there are rules outlined by a particular group of overseers and they wish to exercise a blanket COC for everyone, that is in violation of Freedom of Speech and gives too much control to a group that can continue to change the rules.

    That brings me to the thought of what is taking place throughout our government in silencing the Church’s stands on many issues that are not in line with progressive thinking and some of the new “rules”.  This can lead to a group like this commission to decide that churches and synagogues promote hate speech – or they could twist it to make it look that way.

    I think there needs to be much more monitoring of the Internet, but it should be done by the companies that host different products. That way, they can be monitored and no one group has all the power to do so.  (cont. below)

    • #3
  4. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    In cases of child porn, and all the other garbage that is clearly illegal and a threat to the vulnerable, I welcome more censorship.

    You said a while ago in one of your posts – I think it was about shutting down those undersea cables – that the Internet is a cesspool and you would welcome shutting the whole thing down…In moments of nausea at some of the things I read, I would agree with you – but is it not the user instead of the tools, that s the problem – we have created societies where there are no boundaries at all – and now we are seeing more cesspools.  Lots of food for thought in your post – !

    • #4
  5. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Yes, they are private organizations, just like Ricochet, and what they choose to host on their property is none of our government’s business. In America. In principle.

    If they were really private organizations, then when President Obama called them together to discuss how they could help fight terrorism by promoting counter-narratives (aka stifle political dissent) they should have done the proper American thing and told him to buzz off and mind his own business.  It was highly inappropriate for the President to call those meetings, and it was even more highly inappropriate for the organizations to take part.

    • #5
  6. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: “Is the right to freedom of expression meaningful if these four private entities can control the vehicle by which almost all political speech and thought is now conveyed?”

    Yes, because:

    1) The power of these four private entities is not necessarily eternal. Just as Facebook dethroned MySpace in just a few short years, we cannot know how these four companies will fare a few short years from now. The “power” of Microsoft is greatly diminished since the heyday of Windows 95. Twitter’s “power” is receding. Even Facebook is losing younger users to other services. As some companies become more known for restricting speech, we cannot presume that other companies with better reputations won’t challenge their dominant position. Not unless governments help the “big four” out by regulating all online speech, of course.

    2) There was political speech before the Internet. If political speech is currently conducted mostly through these four outlets, it is done because they provide convenient service. If they put too many restrictions on political speech that convenience will diminish and people will seek other vehicles for political speech.

    • #6
  7. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    The Reticulator:

    Yes, they are private organizations, just like Ricochet, and what they choose to host on their property is none of our government’s business. In America. In principle.

    If they were really private organizations, then when President Obama called them together to discuss how they could help fight terrorism by promoting counter-narratives (aka stifle political dissent) they should have done the proper American thing and told him to buzz off and mind his own business. It was highly inappropriate for the President to call those meetings, and it was even more highly inappropriate for the organizations to take part.

    Just because they choose to get in bed with the government, that doesn’t mean they are no longer private organizations, any more than it would for someone who has a contract to supply the DMV with ballpoint pens.

    • #7
  8. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Front Seat Cat:

    In cases of child porn, and all the other garbage that is clearly illegal and a threat to the vulnerable, I welcome more censorship.

    That’s the route Turkey used to stifle the Internet: Let us have the power so we can stop child porn. People who go after speech don’t usually say, “We want to stop you from expressing your political opinions.”

    • #8
  9. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    Jay Leno’s intern called him racist for not liking Mexican food.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdpKXosSzl8

    The lawgivers, the IT guys, and the citizens are all variants of Jay Leno’s intern.

    • #9
  10. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Misthiocracy:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: “Is the right to freedom of expression meaningful if these four private entities can control the vehicle by which almost all political speech and thought is now conveyed?”

    Yes, because:

    1) The power of these four private entities is not necessarily eternal. Just as Facebook dethroned MySpace in just a few short years, we cannot know how these four companies will fare a few short years from now. The “power” of Microsoft is greatly diminished since the heyday of Windows 95. Twitter’s “power” is receding. Even Facebook is losing younger users to other services. As some companies become more known for restricting speech, we cannot presume that other companies with better reputations won’t challenge their dominant position. Not unless governments help the “big four” out by regulating all online speech, of course.

    2) There was political speech before the Internet. If political speech is currently conducted mostly through these four outlets, it is done because they provide convenient service. If they put too many restrictions on political speech that convenience will diminish and people will seek other vehicles for political speech.

    The fact they government is working with them shows they have jumped or are about to jump the shark.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Misthiocracy:

    The Reticulator:

    Yes, they are private organizations, just like Ricochet, and what they choose to host on their property is none of our government’s business. In America. In principle.

    If they were really private organizations, then when President Obama called them together to discuss how they could help fight terrorism by promoting counter-narratives (aka stifle political dissent) they should have done the proper American thing and told him to buzz off and mind his own business. It was highly inappropriate for the President to call those meetings, and it was even more highly inappropriate for the organizations to take part.

    Just because they choose to get in bed with the government, that doesn’t mean they are no longer private organizations, any more than it would for someone who has a contract to supply the DMV with ballpoint pens.

    It means we don’t just walk away and say, “You’re private organizations, so you can do whatever you want.” End of story. What we should do is another matter, of course.  There are a lot more bad options than good ones.

    • #11
  12. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    People should be allowed to say or write whatever they want. Period. However, at the first whiff of violent action, the police should fall on them like a ton of bricks.

    Suppressing speech will only make it come out later, stronger and more dangerous. You have to allow a little steam on an ongoing basis.

    But I also think Facebook et al have a right if they choose to boot whomever they want off their platform. There is a right to free speech, not a right to free speech on Facebook.

    • #12
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    The Reticulator:

    Misthiocracy:

    The Reticulator:

    Yes, they are private organizations, just like Ricochet, and what they choose to host on their property is none of our government’s business. In America. In principle.

    If they were really private organizations, then when President Obama called them together to discuss how they could help fight terrorism by promoting counter-narratives (aka stifle political dissent) they should have done the proper American thing and told him to buzz off and mind his own business. It was highly inappropriate for the President to call those meetings, and it was even more highly inappropriate for the organizations to take part.

    Just because they choose to get in bed with the government, that doesn’t mean they are no longer private organizations, any more than it would for someone who has a contract to supply the DMV with ballpoint pens.

    It means we don’t just walk away and say, “You’re private organizations, so you can do whatever you want.” End of story. What we should do is another matter, of course. There are a lot more bad options than good ones.

    Stop buying ballpoint pens from that company.

    • #13
  14. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    The only way this qualifies as a “threat to free speech” is if governments give the “big four” the authority to regulate the speech of their competitors, or if governments agree to regulate the speech of their competitors in exchange for certain corporate considerations.

    Either way, at the end of the day, it’s still about government power rather than corporate power.

    I don’t blame McDonnell-Douglas for governmental defense policy. At the end of the day it’s still the government that has the power to make the decisions. McDonnell-Douglas’ lobbyists can make their case and/or offer bribes, but they cannot use force get their way. Only government can do that.

    • #14
  15. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Bryan G. Stephens: The fact they government is working with them shows they have jumped or are about to jump the shark.

    This is such a healthy American attitude, but so hard to explain. We love our country but we limit our government. As long as we keep this instinct, we may be okay.

    • #15
  16. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Governments have never believed in Free Speech.

    Governments have never believed in rights of the people.

    The only way for Free Speech to work is to let everyone speak.

    • #16
  17. Gaby Charing Inactive
    Gaby Charing
    @GabyCharing

    It’s ridiculous to criminalise Holocaust denial. Holocaust deniers are historical flat-earthers and should be treated as such – with derision, but, where necessary, with patient recital of the evidence. Repeating the story of the Holocaust is no bad idea. Holocaust deniers give us the opportunity to do that.

    • #17
  18. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Ok.  I’ll admit it.   I am entirely unfamiliar with Facebook and almost entirely unfamiliar with Twitter.   Go ahead.   Say it.    Troglodyte.   Yep.    Anyway…..

    What, exactly do the IT companies mean?     Example. Someone in, say, Australia, posts something on Facebook or Twitter that runs afoul of the EU hate-speech regulations.   What then?  Twitter/Facebook will prevent that post from being read by EU users?   Can someone in America – where there are no such regulations – still read it?    Or is that EU-offending post just deleted entirely which, in effect, makes everyone on the planet who uses Twitter/Facebook subject to the EU regulations?

    Or am I thinking about this all wrong?

    • #18
  19. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    I am, for the most part, a free speech absolutist. But I also believe in the restriction of “imminent threat.” Let’s look at some examples.

    Stupid but protected: “I hate the Jews!”

    Stupid but definitely not protected: “Meet in the synagogue parking lot! We’re going to kill the Jews!”

    The first is a clearly articulated expression of hate. It identifies the speaker as an idiot which is a useful thing. Open bigotry is actually less dangerous than the clandestine type. (“Geeze, if I had know he was an idiot I wouldn’t have hired/voted for him!”) The second example shows imminent threat and should be reported to authorities immediately. It is clearly an incitement to violence.

    “Hate” legislation is also inherently a violation of the concept of equality under the law. It creates protected classes and adds penalties that apply only to certain groups. A white man killing a minority member is considered more egregious with the added penalty of “hate.” No, murder is murder and should be punished equally because the victims are equally dead, equally grieving families.

    Holocaust deniers are right up there with nut jobs denying other historical truths like the moon landings and the JFK assassination. Letting them express their stupidity is not going to return the Nazis to power. Obsessing over something like that diverts energy and time spent dealing with more pressing problems.

    • #19
  20. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    Whether or not one believes freedom of speech is a moral/human right, it IS a functional safety valve for political passions. Shut the valve and the pressure will surely rise. Violence is the inevitable result.

    BTW, nowhere do I see the definition of hate speech. On campuses in the US, at least, it means anything spoken which does not comport with progressive received wisdom.

    Because of their propensity to censor, I refrain from using any of the named social media platforms. It seems clear we need and ought to support new ones which do not censor.

    • #20
  21. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Misthiocracy:The only way this qualifies as a “threat to free speech” is if governments give the “big four” the authority to regulate the speech of their competitors, or if governments agree to regulate the speech of their competitors in exchange for certain corporate considerations.

    Either way, at the end of the day, it’s still about government power rather than corporate power.

    No, it’s not the only way it qualifies as a threat to free speech. You’re taking a rather statist view of the subject. The First Amendment is not going to do much good in a country where free speech is not widely practiced and supported by our civic and private institutions, where it’s not a primary instinct throughout most of our society.

    In the 19th century, the ideals of government-by-the-people resulted in more democratic church government in many denominations and even in non-Christian religious institutions. And habits of democracy in churches caused habits of democratic thinking for government affairs. There is no rule that said government and church needed to follow the same democratic paths, but they did.  Things are connected that way, free speech included.

    • #21
  22. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    We could pressure our local and state governments to refuse to do business with social media companies that practice censorship.  Some of them refused to do business with North Carolina over the bathroom issue. They should be even more willing to do this.

    • #22
  23. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    civil westman: Shut the valve and the pressure will surely rise. Violence is the inevitable result.

    In reality, Germany shut the valve and peace and stability in Europe resulted. You don’t believe that suddenly no one in Germany wanted to express those sentiments, do you? It took occupation, division, denazification, the levelling of quite some number of German cities and the loss of many American lives to suppress that speech. In the rest of the world, genocide tends to be prompted by what we might loosely call “hate speech.” Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines did presage a genocide in Rwanda. I’m very willing to accept the argument that freedom of speech is a natural right, but I don’t think empirical evidence is on the side of it being anti-violence.

    • #23
  24. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    Oh. my.word!

    • #24
  25. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    The Reticulator:We could pressure our local and state governments to refuse to do business with social media companies that practice censorship. Some of them refused to do business with North Carolina over the bathroom issue. They should be even more willing to do this.

    These companies are more powerful than North Carolina. And I’m not sure what the case for pressuring them would be. They’re private companies: Any law that could force them to accommodate customers they don’t wish to accomodate could do the same to Ricochet, it seems to me.

    • #25
  26. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    The Reticulator: free speech is not widely practiced and supported by our civic and private institutions, where it’s not a primary instinct throughout most of our society.

    How will you know when it’s being properly practiced and supported? How would you measure this?

    • #26
  27. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    I think it depends on the time interval under consideration. In the long haul, small speech prohibitions will become larger and eventually, I believe, violence will result. Today’s Europe is the current experiment. I hope to be around to see the results.

    • #27
  28. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    civil westman: BTW, nowhere do I see the definition of hate speech.

    Civil, I’ve come to believe that it is this that is the defining political battle of our time and that we are completely oblivious to it.

    That is, there are those who seek to be the “definers.”  They get to say when life begins.  They get to say what marriage means.  They get to say what hate speech is.  It is they who get to define reality.

    Meanwhile, we get rather caught up in debating the merits of their definitions.

    • #28
  29. Brian McMenomy Inactive
    Brian McMenomy
    @BrianMcMenomy

    Governments like opacity over transparency and constructed reality  over actual reality.  Whomever they have to co-opt to achieve those ends, they are happy to protect.  We are seeing why political correctness is so poisonous; Western society is losing the ability to discern and stand up for truth (not on Ricochet, of course).

    Governments are taking advantage of trends in the culture to achieve their own ends.  We have to fight the drift in the culture that thinks that freedom from being offended is in the Bill of Rights.  Government starts like a benevolent servant & ends up like Jabba the Hut with a choke chain around Princess Leia’s neck.  A good way to stand up to Jabba is to insist on the freedom to offend & be offended.  I’m with EJ; bring the nastiness into the light so it can be dealt with.

    • #29
  30. Roberto Member
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    Casey:

    civil westman: BTW, nowhere do I see the definition of hate speech.

    Civil, I’ve come to believe that it is this that is the defining political battle of our time and that we are completely oblivious to it.

    Perhaps the definition is what it always has been: someone has the power and desire to suppress the opinion of another.

    WASHINGTON — Twitter suspended a string of popular parody accounts lampooning Russian officials, sparking outrage among their followers and accusations that the social-media giant is bending to pressure from the Kremlin and its allies.

    At least five English-language Twitter accounts needling the Russian government had been suspended as of May 31, though three of those were later reinstated after apparently appealing to the California-based company.

    …Twitter spokesman Ian Plunkett declined to provide an explanation for the suspensions, saying in an e-mail that Twitter does “not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.” He referred RFE/RL to the California-based company’s rules for parody accounts…

    Both Facebook and Twitter in recent years have removed posts and accounts critical of Russian authorities based on claims by Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor that they violate domestic laws. In some cases they have been restored shortly thereafter.

    • #30
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