“The Real Reason Syria Blocked Facebook,” by Idaf

This analysis, explaining why Facebook was blocked in Syria, was written to my by Idaf. It is very interesting. It argues that the reason Facebook was banned was not because of government concerns about virtual "civil society" as I wrote yesterday, an argument that has also appeared on the wire services today. Rather, Idaf argues, security heads in Syria were concerned to stop a spam campaign that used Facebook and was directed against the persons of President Asad and particularly his wife. It also argues that the number of Syrians participating on Facebook continues to expand despite the ban.

Here is Idaf's note:

Dear Josh,

Lets put things in a bit of context!

Since the blocking of Facebook in Syria (first ISP blocked it on Saturday, the last ISP to block it was on Thursday), I was monitoring the "Syria Network" on Facebook (the official Facebook network for Syria).

First, here are the facts, my analysis will follow:

1-Official number of Syrian Internet SUBSCRIBERS in Syria is 370,000 (end 2006). The total estimated number of USERS is 1.5 million users.
2-Number of Syrians residing in Syria who are members of Facebook (those on the official "Syria Network"): 28,350 users (23-Nov-2007)
3-Increase ratio of Syrians joining Facebook (overwhelming majority with their full name): 10,000 users per month. In early October, the number of Syrians on the "Syria Network" was 12,000, today it is over 28,000 users.
4-Percentage of Internet Users in Syria who are Facebook users: 28,300 / 1.5 million = 0.0055 percent

Cleary, if I was in security services, the Syrian security services would love to increase this number and have all Syrians on Facebook. This would facilitate fully monitoring people who are using their photo/full name/ address/phone/email..etc. So the theory for blocking Facebook because few of those well-identified non-anonymous users (all 0.005 percent of Internet users!) are "politically active" does not stand.
.
Why now? What has changed in the last few days? politically active Syrians were using Facebook since day one and no censorship took place until now. What has changed? Did the censors have a target of 0.005 percent of Internet users in Syria to block access to facebook?!
.
In my opinion, the reason is the following:
Since Facebook was launched, the official Syria Facebook network was overwhelmingly "social" in nature with occasional moderate "political activity". A couple of days before the blocking took place (on Nov 15th), a systematic vulgar spam campaign was launched in the Syria Network by few people (with avatars resembling Israeli flags and ridiculing Syrians and Bashar). Those few persistent users posted thousands of nothing but profanity and attacks on Syria, Bashar and Asma Alasad. I'm copying and pasting below a sample of these comments below so you can have an idea (The number of such messages posted was in the hundreds):
"KHARA 3LA SURYA"
"LETS F*** BASHAREL ASSAD" 
"who wants to f*** asma al assad???"
"GOD BLESS ISRAEL" (over a 100 spam messages)
"ana 3alawi.. hawhaw hawwww"
"kes 2mak ya basharel assad"
"israel will destroy syria forever…"
"kess 2m Surya fi 2eri kes 2m surya fi 2eri… ISRAEL ISRAEL ISRAEL…"
  
Unlike the case in the last couple of years, by Nov 19 there was nothing on the Syria Network on Facebook but such comments in addition to Syrians who managed to override the censors who were posting tens of ways and methods to get through to Facebook. It worked well for most. However, this is still the case till now. Facebook people have not been active in blocking such spammers despite the hundreds of users reporting them on Facebook (calls to Report them is heavily repeated on the Syria network). The abusive spam attack was and is still till this moment systematic and organized. Whenever, a spammer is blocked by Facebook, he/she re-register again in a different email and password, join the Syria network and re-launch the abusive spam attacks.
  
If one enters the Syria Network in the last few days, they would find nothing but curses and profanity against Syria, Bashar and Asma Alasad. The Syrian censors acted as expected of any censorship system in the Middle East on such cases.. they blocked access to Facebook!
Anyone is welcome to try the following interesting experiment:
-Organize a team of few dedicated college students.
-Ask them to join Facebook on the Jordanian, Egyptian, Saudi, UAE, Qatari or Tunisian official networks. Let them spam the network with profanity attacking the president/king in that country with such dedication. I argue that in a matter of hours Facebook would be blocked in such countries. In fact, several social networking tools (similar to Facebook) are blocked in the most progressive (and politically neutral) Gulf countries such as the UAE (Dubai) and Bahrain (services such as Google's Orkut for example). This is because very few opposition elements used to exist on them.
  
I can suggest an even better experiment: Get 20-30 young angry Palestinians to do the same steps above on the official Israel network. I bet that Facebook admins will be pressured (by Israeli Facebook users) to block IP addresses (ie. censor) from the originating geographic location of the spammers (which might cause cutting access to Facebook from a specific Arab country).
  
Despite heavy-handedness in Internet censorship in Syria, I don't think that the "political activity" of a small portion of 0.005 percent of Syrian Internet users (most of whom by the way -as Alex argued- were staunchly defending Bashar online against such attack!) was the reason behind Facebook getting blocked. It was the systematic abusive spam attack that the Syrian censors had no other control on but to block access. I argue that Syria Comment or Creative Syria blogs have far more "political activity" of Syrian opposition than Facebook but they are still accessible in Syria.
  
Being as short-sighted as they are, the Syrian censorship authorities thought that blocking 28,000 users from accessing online forum (just to not allow them to read such comments) would not have much impact. They did not realize (again) that the fact that they blocked a website will cause negative noise in the media, far more damaging than some of the few of the 28,000 thousand Syrians reading (and rejecting) slurs against their country or president.
  
After reading all the spam from AIG on Syria Comment and other Syria-focused blogs, the "conspiracy theorist" in me is starting to believe that some amateur in Israel is recruiting young Israelis to sabotage Syrian online forums 🙂
  
However, don't worry about the Syrian Facebook users. Syrian online content have become "un-censorable" in Syria. Tens of Syrian home-grown anti-censorship "cracking and Hacking" tools come pre-installed on any laptop/desktop PC bought in Syria. Most of the 28 thousand users will continue to access Facebook (same case with YouTube and BlogSpot). These are the most technically savvy of Syrians anyway. In the last few days, I started receiving emails including lists of tens of methods for overcoming censorship of Facebook, sent from Syrian email addresses I do not recognize. Some of these methods are even getting posted and updated on several newly formed Syrian groups on Facebook (where Syrians are joining with their full names). Despite all the hype, Internet censorship in Syria is limited, ineffective and technically incomprehensive.
  
The media hype on this is way greater than the actual impact of censorship in Syria. In contrast, Internet censorship in many Gulf countries is almost unbreakable. Unlike in Syria, governments there heavily invest in Internet censorship (for example, Flickr and Urkut are censored in most of the Gulf, many Arabic newspapers website are blocked in Jordan and the Gulf).
Finally I did another quick experiment and noticed that the average number of Syrians joining the Facebook did not change much. Refreshing the official Syria Network page on Facebook continued to reveal a steady increase of number of Syrians joining (The number has increased by 30 new member during the time I was writing this message, despite the fact that it is early morning in Syria). The current number of users on Syria network is 28,350.

Comments (30)


 

2. Shual said:

“by Nov 19”

Germany can report of an major DDOS-attack on several blog-servers on 19th that created massive restrictions, access problems, a.s.o.. A possible “fall-out” or “accidental effect” of an syrian attack.

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November 24th, 2007, 3:40 pm

 

3. Offended said:

Two thumps up Idaf. Great analysis and I totally agree with it!

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November 24th, 2007, 3:43 pm

 

4. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Since Josh is also in the Syrian facebook groups, how come he did not get the alleged spam? There are many Syrian facebook subscribers that read this blog. Let them say if they think IDAF makes sense. Was the spam that prevalent and obtrusive and could it be the main explanation?

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November 24th, 2007, 5:08 pm

 

5. Findalaawi said:

Wow. This makes a lot of sense, knowing how Syrian PR has yet to come up to the level of the 1970’s. Thanks.

And as of right now, the number of people in the Syrian network is 28,459.

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November 24th, 2007, 5:41 pm

 

6. Bashmann said:

Idaf;

A Valiant effort indeed.

However, Facebook is not the issue here; let’s not divert the attentions of many to a simple blocking of a “Social” internet network. The authorities in Damascus, felt threatened simply ‘cause of profanity!!!
Many other sites including chat-rooms are brimming with profane languages directed at Bashar Asad. In fact I happen to be in one chat-room yesterday and the things that were said about Bashar and his father makes Facebook looks like a child’s play. The authorities have not even gotten a glimpse of these sites yet but I’m sure in time they will and will block as well.

But the real issue here is the systematic campaign of internet censorship in Damascus that has been going on for the past 10 years. In fact one of the main problems for the delay in building a suitable infrastructure for the internet in the country is the Authority’s dilemma on how they can implement a stricter control of it.

I agree with you regarding the percentage of people on Facebook and the authorities’ actions in blocking the site which in reality backfired on them. It only reinforces the point of ignorance and stupidity of the Mukhabarat who seem to never run out creative ways to stifle the freedom of the people in Syria.

Many news sites have been blocked for political reasons and many more are being blocked on daily basis. Let’s not delude ourselves that Syria is the nirvana of censor-free internet access. It is unethical to portray such a picture when many young-men have been simply thrown in jail for publishing an article on the net that did not conform to the regime view of things.

Syria will always be a police state as long as we Syrians, especially those abroad, cease to be acquiescent in challenging authorities.

Cheers

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November 24th, 2007, 6:39 pm

 

7. Shual said:

AIG,

there is no “Josh in Syria” in case of internet connection. Mr. Landis reportes that he was in New York, “Wunderbar Amerika”. It should be no spam on regular americans. The gates to Syria are open.

Facebook itself? Sweet little trick by the CIA after all those desasters? “Und wer nicht tanzen will am Schluß, weiß noch nicht waß er tanzen muß.” You, as an Israeli, should know that.

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November 24th, 2007, 6:41 pm

 

8. Innocent_Criminal said:

actually Idaf might be right. i saw the latest posts on that network and some hacker had A LOT of spam messages on the site, some had the israeli flag and most had some guy holding his erection while cursing out syria.

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November 24th, 2007, 7:28 pm

 

9. Yazan said:

That is just the biggest bowl of …..[edited word by monitor for profanity] I am yet to hear.

Hows is that a reason to block the site?!

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November 24th, 2007, 7:37 pm

 

10. idaf said:

Bashman,

I did not claim that Syria is “nirvana of censor-free internet access”! You have a strange way of reading!

Censorship is prevalent indeed in Syria (as in the rest of the Middle East). To keep things in context, in Syria however, the obsession with censorship by the authorities is 10 folds LESS than the case of most other “moderate” Arab countries (in terms of technology, efforts, man-power and investment put in censorship).

This is not saying that people’s online activities are not monitored in Syria. Of course they are! However, unlike Saudi for example, authorities in Syria only have certain people “flagged” for monitoring. For comparison, in the US whole ethnic groups are flagged for online monitoring, while in Saudi, Internet usage is subjected to Artificial Intelligence-based “keyword monitoring” so every single user mentioning words such as “gay”, “king abdulla”, “sex” and a long long list of other keyword (in both Arabic and English) will pop up on the censors reports as potential zoom-in target. In Syria, there is not such an obsession. Only people who are “stupid” enough to use their real names online and “cross the red line” (ie. call for regime change, violence, sectarianism, militancy.. etc.) will be zoomed-on for more monitoring (and possible prosecution). However, rest assured that anonymous online browsing tools are as common in Syria as Falafel, so your average young tech-savvy Internet user in Syria is as safe posting/blogging online as someone in Switzerland in most cases! This is why censors can only resort to blocking the website (which is as useless as “telling” people not to go to that website as there are 100s of ways to go overcome censorship anonymously in Syria)!

When those chatrooms you’re mentioning get a critical mass of Syria-based users, they will get blocked no doubt. This is the unfortunate case today in the whole middle east (from Morocco to Dubai to Syria). In fact Internet censorship is not a Syrian or Middle Eastern invention, it is available in almost every country in the world (“OECD countries” and “third world” alike). The “redlines” and authorities reactions differ from country to another. For example, try posting a pro-Nazi articles online in France or Israeli and odds are that you will end up in jail and your content blocked. Try to discuss online pro-militant Islam in the US and you will have a couple of FBI agents knocking on your door. Try to create “wine tasting” blog or a gay/lesbian related article online in Saudi and you’ll be lucky if you don’t get flocked in a public square. In Bahrain, by law, you’ll need to get a written permit from the authorities to even start a blog (regardless of the topic). Start a racist white-supremacy blog in South Africa and chances are it will get blocked by the ISP, content provider or authorities and you get subjected to prosecution. In Syria, as other ME countries, the red-lines include the president. These redlines also include sectarian speech and Islamist violence. Any “anti-regime” talk is censored in almost 60 percent of countries around the world. Syria today, belongs to this 60 percent of the world, this will have to change gradually, but do not expect any dramatic changes as long as there is external pressure on the regime. Only stability and gradual civil society push inside Syria is what will change this.. not you or the other 2 members in Hizb Elinfitah abroad.

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November 24th, 2007, 8:34 pm

 

11. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Idaf,
Don’t you ever get bored with the two wrongs make a right argument?
You provide arguments that nobody in the US or Canada or Israel would accept, yet want us to buy them when it relates to Syria.
How a regime treats its own people has NOTHING to do with external pressures on the regime, unless the regime is using its own people as hostages. Is the Syrian argument the following: You better reduce the pressure on the regime or we will treat Syrians worse? It seems that this is what you are saying.

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November 24th, 2007, 8:54 pm

 

12. Offened said:

Well AIG, how the regime treats its people has everything to do with the double standards of facebook proprietors.

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November 24th, 2007, 10:15 pm

 

13. Offended said:

Well AIG,
How the regime treats its people has everything to do with the double standards of Facebook proprietors.

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November 24th, 2007, 10:20 pm

 

14. Offended said:

Where did Jo DiMaggio go?….oh sorry, where did Alex go?

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November 24th, 2007, 10:22 pm

 

15. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Right Offended, the facebook owners hate Arabs and love Jews.
And even if that ridiculous notion is true, how is that relevant to how Asad treats the Syrian people? It should not be an excuse for Asad to oppress Syrians.

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November 24th, 2007, 10:44 pm

 

16. why-discuss said:

Insults, degrading and hateful depictions of individuals or races or religions are not acceptable in newspapers, they should not be acceptable on Internet. Any means should be used to stop them and punish them. I just don’t care about the “freedom of expression” argument.

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November 24th, 2007, 10:51 pm

 

17. Enlightened said:

Australia had its election Saturday and the Government was thrown out the opposition managed to win 30 extra seats from the government. More alarmingly the Prime Minister could lose his seat in Parliament, and counting is still going on for his seat, and it is on a knife edge.

This is significant despite massive economic growth, a stable economy, the electorate turned against the Government and the Prime Minister, as a leading member of the Coalition of the willing, the electorate threw him out. On the Upside the Australian troops will be coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

You have got to love Democracy! I know I do.

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November 25th, 2007, 12:22 am

 

18. trustquest said:

Syrian people do not get their fair share of knowledge, world connection, technological development and their sense of being on this earth through their government outlets. Never did and never will. They get all of those services through pirating; steeling and through what other countries give away for free, anyone visited Syria would realize that. All the shops for CDs market are illegal copping shops and the funny thing is that even the government buys from them. Most media in Syria comes through illegal satellites dishes stretch all over the country, which is until now is not regulated and leaves the whole population subject to what authority claim and fight against “imperialism hegemony”.
The recent facebook and other sites blocking will actually encourage the internet satellites services. Uncle Sam soon will realize that offering free connection to the internet through satellites will increase their sales of American and western products and will penetrate those countries who are trying to resist assimilation.
On the other hand, when government open the doors for free or regulated economy, (market economy), and at the same time closes the windows on change, it is like shooting oneself in the foot. I think shooing oneself in the foot hurts and could bleed to death.

If we want to believe that spam was behind the shutdown, it means that the regime can plant a violation of his rules and then will good excuse to shut down any site.
Interesting?

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November 25th, 2007, 12:24 am

 

19. Enlightened said:

It has made the news all the way in Australia:

Syria bans Facebook:

http://www.smh.com.au/news/technology/syria-bans-facebook/2007/11/24/1195753379113.html

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November 25th, 2007, 12:49 am

 

20. norman said:

Enlighted one ,

Iraq is difeating the invaders one after the other , Blair, Howard then Bush in 08.

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November 25th, 2007, 2:28 am

 

21. abraham said:

Norman said:

Iraq is difeating the invaders one after the other , Blair, Howard then Bush in 08.

One person is only allowed to serve two consecutive terms (8 years) in the U.S. But don’t be surprised if the current Asshole in Chief decides to stay on for more time. My guess is that Osama bin Laden will show up just in time around November of 2008.

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November 25th, 2007, 4:54 am

 

22. abraham said:

IDAF said:

The “redlines” and authorities reactions differ from country to another. For example, try posting a pro-Nazi articles online in France or Israeli and odds are that you will end up in jail and your content blocked. Try to discuss online pro-militant Islam in the US and you will have a couple of FBI agents knocking on your door. Try to create “wine tasting” blog or a gay/lesbian related article online in Saudi and you’ll be lucky if you don’t get flocked in a public square. In Bahrain, by law, you’ll need to get a written permit from the authorities to even start a blog (regardless of the topic). Start a racist white-supremacy blog in South Africa and chances are it will get blocked by the ISP, content provider or authorities and you get subjected to prosecution.

Hi Idaf.

Thanks for the analysis. I also appreciate you posting the above.

It confirms that while Syria’s government censorship is dumb, it’s not unique. The US is virtually monitored 100% by government computers. If one says something “unpopular” it is definitely flagged. Living in a “democracy” we just assume we are not monitored, but it has been common knowledge for a while now that the US government is monitoring internet communications of U.S. citizens. That makes the US government about as fundamentally ethical as the Syrian government. Or the Israeli government for that matter (FREE VANUNU!)

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November 25th, 2007, 5:03 am

 

23. adiamondinsunlight said:

Very interesting analysis by Idaf, Josh – thank you for posting. Definitely food for thought. I’ve reported a number of Lebanese Facebook groups, users etc. for vitriolic attacks on Palestinians, Muslims, etc. With Facebook growing increasingly global, the administrators need to recruit staffers to watch for insults in non-Romance languages.

Nice to see you last week!

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November 25th, 2007, 5:45 am

 

24. Ghassan said:

I never heard worse reason that this ever in my life! I think this blog demonstrated its stupidity!

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November 25th, 2007, 2:19 pm

 

25. idaf said:

Yazan,

This was not a justification, but rather an analysis of what probably did happen (decision making process in Syrian censorship authorities).

Try to understand the difference between the two.

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November 25th, 2007, 3:03 pm

 

26. Bashmann said:

Idaf,

Thanks for the technical exploration in internet censorship. You seem fit for such a profession.

And thanks for the vote of confidence in Alenfetah Party. Typical defeatest Syrian attitude, I’m not surprised. I heard them all.

Cheers.

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November 25th, 2007, 5:57 pm

 

27. CWW said:

That “analysis” and his follow-up on the 24th comment was one apology for the regime after another. At a number of points Idaf asserts that internet censorship is worse in other countries of the Middle East. Well that really doesn’t say much. Nor is that significant. Moreover, given the level of political repression in Syria at the moment, I find it hard to believe.

I don’t really understand why people don’t make every effort to condemn this kind of repression by the regime. Instead people compare this to what goes on in France or the US in an effort to equate the two. Perhaps, its easier to believe, “things aren’t that bad here, the repression is worse in the Gulf and it even exists all around the world.” Well, things will only improve when people decide to no longer comfort themselves by such thoughts and recognize that Syria is one of the most politically closed societies in the world today.

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November 25th, 2007, 9:39 pm

 

28. Facebook blocked in Syria said:

[…] On Joshua Landis’ site Syria Comment, at least one person presented a different view of the Facebook crackdown, arguing that the authorities were reacting to offensive spam aimed at President Assad’s wife. Here are some of his comments: […]

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November 26th, 2007, 4:47 pm

 

29. This is Babylon » No Poking in Damascus: Syria Bans Facebook said:

[…] Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was head of the Syrian Computer Society before becoming president, and Syria’s internet presence is largely attributed to him. As of the banning, the official Syria network had 28,350 users. […]

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November 26th, 2007, 8:01 pm

 

30. Friend in America said:

IDAF – Thank you for a well reasoned explanation. It helps all of us in understanding the considerations involved in Syria’s decision to block Facebook. Explanations of the reasons for governmental decisions helps everyone understand and hopefully dampen needless name calling. I hope more will be forthcoming.

A word on security evesdropping in America. As you know from the newspaper reports in the past 2 years, this is a difficult, sensitive issue in America. Permitting evesdropping violates widely held perceptions of free speech and personal privacy. It makes most Americans very uncomfortable, the undersigned included. Yet, some compromises have been made because of very legitimate concerns for national security. First, in telephone calls, monitoring messages may be done only on international phone calls and only after obtaining a court order which limits the time monitoring may be done. To obtain the orer the security agency must show the evidence it has that one of the callers is a suspect. As to the internet, security officials do monitor all sites known to them in which they have detected communications between suspected terrorists, terrorist groups and sympathizers, but there is no blocking. Even this limited monitoring is a very sensitive measure and is being watched regularly by the Congress and its investigative staff. This past summer security officials successfully negotiated with Congress rules for procedures which had not previously existed. I am unaware of any blocking of an internet site because of criticism of the government, governmental leaders, various religions or religious leaders or profanity nor do I believe a Court would tolerate a block for these reasons. There was a block of a site from an eastern Europe country offering pornographic pictures of sexual acts with children. That block was not opposed, so it never came before a Judge. One of the candidates for President is a Mormon (Church of Latter Day Saints), a Christian denomination started in America severely criticized in the 19th century and although very successful in its recent outreach remains out of the mainstream of American Christianity. His membership might incite very derogatory, even profane, remarks. Any such criticsm is entirely inappropriate but it cannot and will not be censored. Incidentally, he is an extremely capable candidate and would make a President most of the world would welcome.

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November 26th, 2007, 10:41 pm

 

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