Public Views on the Anti-Terrorism Act (formerly Bill C-36)



3.3 Reactions to the Anti-terrorism Act

After participants were asked about terrorism in general and their awareness of the Anti-terrorism Act was gauged, they were introduced to specific provisions of the Act. For each provision, a handout was distributed (see Appendix C) and was read by the participants, and a discussion followed.

3.3.1 Overview of the Anti-terrorism Act

Participants were first given a brief description of the Anti-terrorism Act (see handout 1 in Appendix C).

This description triggered a wide range of reactions, depending on the participants' views on foreign politics and terrorism. Qualitatively, opinions appeared to be divided along the following five lines:

  1. A small number of participants felt that the Canadian legislation is probably not tough enough. ("Classic Canadiana: sounds tough, but not enough to stop anything.")
  2. Some participants were somewhat reassured and comforted that Canada is doing something to fight terrorism. ("I'm willing to give up something to be safer.") There appeared to be more participants with this opinion than with the first one, but fewer than those with the third one. Those who felt this way were mostly English-speaking participants from Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax, Regina, Calgary, and Vancouver. These participants could be further divided into two groups: those who thought the Act might deter terrorism and those who were sceptical because "there is nothing that will stop those people."
  3. The largest number of participants felt that the description was too vague and did not tell them enough to allow them to form an opinion. Those who felt this way were mostly English-speaking participants from Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax Group 1, Regina Group 1, Calgary, and Vancouver. These participants asked: "What investigative tools? What do they mean by ensuring that Canadian values are preserved? This sounds great, but how does it work? How far does it go?"
  4. Some participants were concerned that this law is "a knee-jerk reaction" which may lead to the authorities becoming "paranoid." These people tended to express concerns about privacy and/or racial discrimination. ("The media made out terrorists as Middle Eastern"). This opinion was only expressed by a few French-speaking participants, particularly in Montreal and Quebec City.
  5. Some participants were opposed to the law because they saw it as driven by the United States and considered it a serious threat to the rights of Canadians. Typically, these participants did not think that terrorists should be treated any differently from other criminals and they had serious concerns about the potential for abuse by the police or the authorities in general. ("I find it aberrant to use the word terrorism to qualify people as though they were different from people who commit crimes.") However, only a few French-speaking participants from Montreal and Quebec City and a few Group 2 participants in Regina and Halifax were of this opinion, although they were very vocal about it.

Generally, participants across both age groups and in all cities felt that the description was "very vague," "very broad," and they questioned some of the terminology used in the description. "Sounds good, but what does it mean?" Participants needed more information on the Act before they could give their full opinions.

One of the primary questions participants asked was "How does it work?" Some participants suggested that the inclusion of vague terminology contributed to the feeling that the description itself is weak. For example, many would have liked further explanation of the 'new investigative tools' that can be used to fight terrorism. Some concern was expressed that these 'new investigative tools' could be used by authorities to take away individual civil rights. The statement "Canadian values of respect and fairness" was reassuring to some participants; however, it appeared to contradict the idea of 'new investigative tools.'

Some participants acknowledged that balancing individual rights and freedoms and fighting terrorism is a difficult task, and they were not sure the description of the Act reflects such a balance. They agreed that we live in "scary" times and that individuals may have to sacrifice some of their rights for the greater good, safety, and protection of the country as a whole.

The reference to 'hate crimes and propaganda' was also found by some participants in Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City to require a better explanation; the word propaganda, in particular, was interpreted by some as a threat to the freedom of expression. One participant suggested that the reference to stronger laws against propaganda could be used to target legitimate groups.

That could apply to Greenpeace or any labour union. (Quebec City, Group 1)

Some participants, particularly in the older groups in Winnipeg and Halifax, wondered what the new 'safeguards' for fighting terrorism were; they felt that the term required more explanation.

A significant minority of participants in Winnipeg, Regina, and Vancouver felt that the Act would only be as good as the funding and manpower that was devoted to it. In their opinion, the Canadian government does not have either in place to support the implementation of the activities referred to in the description.

Other participants in Winnipeg and Regina wondered who actually controls and enforces the 'new investigative tools.' Is it the Government, CSIS, or the police? They expressed some concern that if the power was left in the wrong hands, these 'tools' could be abused.

Some participants felt that the existence of the Act represented a step in the right direction. They saw the Act as something positive because it indicated that Canada had something in place in the event of an attack by terrorists. Just knowing that it exists brought a measure of comfort to some participants. The Act was also perceived in a positive light because it responded to United Nations requirements.

A few participants wondered why they had never heard of the Act prior to the session, and others wondered if anyone had been charged under the Act since its inception.

Why don't I know about this? (Halifax, Group 2)

Moreover, Group 2 participants in Vancouver expressed some concern that they never seemed to hear any news from the Government about fighting crime and said that they would like more information in this regard.

Participants in both Toronto groups and in Winnipeg Group 2 questioned why there was no reference to the rights of visible minorities in the brief description of the Act. More specifically, they wondered if the 'new investigative tools' and the Act itself would lead to racial profiling of visible minority groups. This reaction did not appear to come up in other cities.

It doesn't mention ethnicity. What about the rights of visible minorities? (Toronto, Group 1)

The sentence "Bill C-36 is not just a reaction to events…" was not believed by most participants in Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City, who wondered why it was passed in the fall of 2001; they suspected that it was passed under pressure from the United States to secure borders.

However, as mentioned previously, many participants in the other cities took comfort in knowing that the Act was created/passed in response to a United Nations request and that Canada adhered to a United Nations obligation.

The general reaction among participants in both age groups and in all cities demonstrates that if this brief description were presented to the public, it would most likely generate more questions than answers.

Comparative Toughness

Most participants indicated that they thought that the Canadian Anti-terrorism Act was less severe than similar anti-terrorism laws in the United States, but they did not know for certain. This was not primarily based on knowledge of the laws or personal experience, but rather on the perception that the United States has extremely harsh and tough anti-terrorism laws. While some participants believed that the anti-terrorism laws of the United States and Canada are similar, enforcement of the laws was thought to be more severe in the United States than in Canada.

A few participants felt that Canada would give offenders under the Act a "slap on the wrist" compared to the perceived harsher 'justice' that would be dealt out in the United States. Canada was perceived by some to have rather lenient laws generally, in relation to other countries.

Ours are less severe. The Government doesn't back what they say they are doing. (Halifax, Group 1)

With regard to the anti-terrorism laws of the United Kingdom, even if several participants could not tell and/or would not hazard a guess, once again, the perception was that the Canadian laws are less severe. One reason given by participants for this perception was that the United Kingdom was instrumental in the 'War on Terrorism' carried out by the United States and other coalition countries in Iraq.

3.3.2 Definition of a Terrorist Activity

A handout introducing the definition of a terrorist activity was distributed to participants (see handout 2 in Appendix C).

Most of the participants were satisfied with the definition of a terrorist activity and claimed that it was necessary, that it seemed "comprehensive," and that it "explained well" what terrorism is.

However, it was not clear to some that all three criteria have to be met (i.e. the act is motivated by political, religious, or ideological purposes; the act is intended to intimidate the public or compel the government not to do something; and the act is intended to harm through violence/death or to interfere with an essential service) in order for something to be considered an act of terrorism. When this was not properly understood, participants were much more likely to be wary of the definition. When they understood it, they typically reacted as follows:

I think it is very fair; it has to be all three criteria. (Halifax, Group 2)

Many participants who were receptive to the definition felt that the fact that it was very broad and all encompassing worked to its advantage. That is, if the definition was narrowed down any further, it might exclude actual terrorist groups. Indeed, a broad definition appeared to be key for these participants.

Some participants, however, took issue with the definition. Mainly, they found that the definition was far too broad, that it could apply to "pressure groups" such as environmentalists, anti-globalization activists, and even demonstrating labour union members, although the law specifically excludes work stoppages, protests, advocacy, or dissent.

You could jail environmentalists with this on the grounds that they are ideologically motivated, intend to compel the government to do something, and may interfere with an essential service. (Montreal, Group 2)

French-speaking participants, who remembered the War Measures Act being invoked during the October crisis, when hundreds of individuals were jailed, including well-known politicians, singers, and artists, expressed serious concerns.

In the particular instance described by the last comment, the participant was concerned about the interpretation that a judge could give to a protest group.

Some participants in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, Regina, and Vancouver were trying to find 'loopholes' in the definition, using the examples of Greenpeace, the Hell's Angels, seal hunters, and anti-globalization protestors, and trying to figure out if these groups fit this description. They were still unclear as to whether or not these groups might be described as 'terrorists' under the definition. Some of them concluded that the definition was dependent on the discretion of those who have the power to charge someone with an offence. They hoped that the definition would be applied fairly.

With regard to the wording of the provision, "intimidate the public or a segment of the public" was believed to be very broad and vague, and "interfere with or seriously disrupt an essential service, facility, or system" was found to be very encompassing and was perceived as giving a lot of latitude to judges, who could label and consider as terrorists almost any activist group or protester.

Perceived Usefulness

Participants were divided on whether the definition of a terrorist activity was a useful tool in identifying who is a terrorist and who is not. Again, it appeared to come down to who was making this decision. More importantly, very few believed that it would be effective in preventing terrorist acts, since "there was no way to stop somebody who is prepared to die," someone who is prepared to be a martyr for a cause.

Many did not believe that this definition per se may have helped prevent terrorist acts or offences or may help prevent them in the future. This was mainly because many participants believed that the occurrence of terrorist acts in Canada is very unlikely and that, despite the existence of the definition, not much can be done to prevent a terrorist attack.

A few participants in Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City disagreed with the above point and claimed that the definition might be helpful in catching terrorists before they act. They tended to cite the cases of Ahmed Ressam and the 'shoe bomber' as examples that Bill C-36 and the definition of terrorist activity may prevent terrorist acts or offences. This opinion was not shared by some participants in other cities, who felt that the definition itself could not prevent terrorist acts but that it was "nice to have."

Desire for Information

Very few participants were aware of the definition prior to the focus group sessions. Although some claimed that it would be important for the public to know, most admitted that because they were not terrorists themselves or in contact with terrorists, it was unlikely to affect them in their daily life and it was not something that they absolutely needed to know. Indeed, for many individuals, the definition was considered to be quite technical and "legal," despite its simplified form. The exception would be the minority of participants who feared, to some degree, that it might affect them or people who share their views and engage in demonstrations. This was particularly true among French-speaking participants.

3.3.3 Listing of Terrorist Entities

Participants were given a handout on the criteria for listing terrorist entities (see handout 3 in Appendix C).

The overall reaction to the listing of terrorist entities was that it is probably a 'necessary evil.' Many participants agreed in general with the measure and felt it was straight forward. However, several questioned whether having the right to appeal being listed as a terrorist entity only after the fact goes against the traditional presumption of 'innocent until proven guilty.' Participants considered this presumption one of the cornerstones of our legal system. Some also questioned whether the listing of terrorist entities is against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Participants across both age groups and in all cities thought that this provision changed the legal process to that of 'guilty until proven innocent.' Some participants commented that the provision might unfairly label legitimate individuals or organizations, which would cause them to be stigmatized and could potentially ruin lives.

Jumping the gun, labelling people. Once you're accused you are labelled forever. (Calgary, Group 2)

Participants also felt that there must be a "good reason" for an individual or an organization to be targeted as a terrorist entity. That being said, those wary of such measures also questioned the notion of "reasonable grounds," again citing the Maher Arar affair.

You have to do something to get on the list. (Vancouver, Group 2)

Some participants had concerns about the power of the Federal Cabinet to oversee "the list" of terrorist entities. In their opinion, this power is only as good as the sources used to gather information on terrorist entities, and if the sources used were unreliable, the potential exists for mislabelling groups or individuals as terrorists.

Perceived Usefulness

The provision was seen by many participants as being an effective tool for identifying terrorist organizations, if it is used properly. In their opinion, it is effective because it puts terrorist organizations "out in the open," thereby informing people that these organizations are terrorist entities. Many did not believe that the provision would prevent terrorism, since they felt that nothing could stop those who have their mind set on dying for their cause. Furthermore, some participants suggested that the provision might drive terrorist organizations further 'underground.' While these participants viewed the provision as slowing down organizations, they noted that "terrorists are resourceful" and would eventually find a way around this provision (e.g. by re-naming their organizations).

Desire for Information

The fact that the list is public was considered to be a must, although some participants see in it the danger that somebody whose name was once on the list, even if it is taken off after appeal, might still have his/her reputation tarnished. (Winnipeg Group 1 participants, who fundamentally disagreed with the concept of "the list," felt particularly strongly about this.)

Some participants questioned the practice of sharing the list with other countries, wondering if when someone's name was taken off the list after an appeal, it would be taken off the International list as well as the Canadian one. On the whole, participants believed that the list would have considerably less power and influence if it was not made public.

Many participants wondered where the list was located and if it was available to the public, given that the Act has been in place since the fall of 2001. There was a strong sense that they would like to have access to the list to see which organizations are considered to be terrorist entities.

This provision gave rise to a certain number of questions. For instance, some participants asked why, if some organizations were already on the list, they had not yet been reprimanded by the federal government. Further, they wondered why, if these organizations have indeed been reprimanded by the Government, the public has not been informed. Participants seemed to feel that informing the public of how the provision has been used would add some legitimacy to the effectiveness of the tool and give credence to the existence of the Anti-terrorism Act as a whole.

Whereas people admitted that they did not know about this provision, they also claimed that they somehow suspected that such a list existed and they believed that it would be a useful tool to disable organizations promoting terrorist activities. They expected that organizations such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, as well as some Middle Eastern charities, would be on this list. Several participants had indeed heard through the media that some Middle Eastern charitable organizations were funnelling money to terrorist groups.

3.3.4 Financing of Terrorism

A handout containing information on the financing of terrorism provision was given to participants (see handout 4 in Appendix C).

Participants generally agreed with the actions that can be taken under the provision of the Act that concerns financing of terrorism. These actions were viewed by participants in Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City as being very similar to the measures taken against the Hell's Angels under the anti-gang legislation. In the other cities, while participants considered that these two laws were similar to the financial suppression laws that already exist under the Criminal Code, they viewed this provision of the Anti-terrorism Act as different in that it specifically targets terrorists. Some participants questioned the fact that the right of appeal comes after action has been taken, which is in contradiction to the traditional presumption of 'innocent until proven guilty.'

This provision also generated some questions among participants. Some had concerns about how 'innocent' people would be treated under this provision. For example, participants wondered what would happen if a company did not know it was funnelling money to a terrorist group. If this company was reprimanded, what would the punishment be and would the company have a chance to clear its name? These participants also wondered how the organization would clear its name, given that its assets would be frozen. Moreover, if the organization was found to be innocent of the charges, would it then get its assets back?

What happens prior to 'appeal.' Am I in jail? What are the rights of the individual? (Toronto, Group 1)

The main issue with this provision for many participants was the reporting obligation. Several imagined themselves in a situation where they might see something suspect going on in their neighbourhood, for example, and be "scared" to report the person or persons committing this act.

A few participants found this section of the provision 'normal' and indicated that such a reporting obligation already exists under the Criminal Code. A few felt that it is an individual's ethical duty to report any wrongdoing for the overall good of society.

Still, some participants thought that there should be some exceptions to this reporting obligation, for example, when the life of the person reporting or the lives of his or her family are at risk. Clearly, this section of the provision concerned some participants and made them feel uncomfortable.

Many participants questioned the ten-year maximum penalty. For the most part, these participants viewed this penalty as too lenient, since, as far as they knew, most people convicted of crimes in Canada do not serve their full sentence. A few participants suggested that the penalty should reflect the nature of the crime, while others suggested that the minimum sentence be ten years, thus increasing the maximum sentence.

Perceived Effect on Charitable Organizations

Many participants had thought that charitable organizations could potentially be linked to terrorist groups. None of the participants had been deterred, however, from donating money because of this. Most of those interviewed said that they donated to 'legitimate' or 'mainstream' charitable organizations (e.g. the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the United Way), if at all. In Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City, the association was clearly made with Middle Eastern groups. Thus, most did not think that it would make it more difficult for 'legitimate' charitable organizations to receive donations, unless they were charitable organizations with Middle Eastern ties.

In the other cities, participants felt that this provision could affect donating practices to smaller "fringe" organizations or religious organizations. They thought that it was up to individuals to "do their homework" with regards to charitable organizations prior to making a donation, if they did not wish to become accidentally affiliated with a terrorist group.

Perceived Usefulness

Many thought that the provision regarding the financing of terrorism was a useful approach to preventing terrorism, and although some did not specifically know about the provision, they expected that something like it would exist, again using the anti-gang and financial suppression laws as models. Some participants were aware of the provision and felt that stopping the flow of money to terrorist organizations was a big step towards slowing them down and reducing their ability to fund their 'missions,' thereby preventing terrorism to some extent. Nevertheless, participants suspected that terrorist organizations would adapt and find other ways to fund their operations.

Most important aspect is to take away the money from terrorists. (Calgary, Group 1)

Desire for Information

Some participants had heard of this provision when they were made aware of the Anti-terrorism Act as a whole; therefore, they did not feel they needed any more information on the provision. The general feeling was that information about the provision regarding the financing of terrorism should be communicated as part of the Act as a whole. Participants felt that any communication plan should include all five provisions, as introducing or explaining the provisions separately might confuse the general public.

3.3.5 New Investigative and Preventive Arrest Powers

After reading a handout on the new investigative and preventive arrest powers (see handout 5 in Appendix C), many participants stated that these new powers were reasonable overall. Some participants called the provision "powerful,"while a few believed that the new investigative and preventive arrest powers are "tough measures!" Participants commented that the provision strikes a good balance between individual rights and the collective rights of the general public.

These keep me and my family safe. (Winnipeg, Group 2)

Group 2 participants in Regina and Halifax as well as a minority of respondents in the French groups in Montreal and Quebec City took exception to the provisions and saw them as a violation of individual rights and freedoms. As they were reading about these provisions, they recalled the era of "McCarthyism" and thought that the police might use these new investigative tools and powers to detect crimes other than terrorism.

The reason why they made a law is not necessarily the same as the reason why they're going to enforce it afterwards - that's my worry. (Quebec City, Group 1)

A few Group 2 participants in Calgary said that these laws were "nothing new" and that Canadians have "very few rights to begin with." It should be noted that these particular participants seemed to be familiar with the law and the Criminal Code, as their stated educational background and experience indicated.

Some participants had some concerns about the wiretapping disposition. While they agreed that suspected terrorists should be wiretapped without their knowledge ("that's just common sense"), they would like some kind of reassurance that if the wiretapping uncovered other infractions unrelated to terrorism (for example, smoking marijuana), such evidence would not be allowed to lead to prosecution.

Some participants questioned the use of wiretapping in general. ("Isn't wiretapping out of date? I would hope that they would monitor computer use as well.") The perception among some participants was that, in this day and age, many terrorists communicate via e-mail or instant messenger technology, and they would hope that the Government and the police have the infrastructure and measures in place to monitor these avenues as well as telephone lines.

Only a small minority took issue with the fact that it is an offence to refuse to give information, especially since the provision specifies that such a refusal is not a terrorist offence.

Perceived Usefulness

Some of the participants who agreed in general with the investigative and preventive arrest powers did not agree, however, with the notion that a person could be arrested without a warrant if police felt the situation was urgent. According to these participants, "that is intrusive; it gives the Government and the police carte blanche," and making an arrest without a warrant is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As expressed with regard to other provisions, here too there is an assumption that people are "guilty until proven innocent." However, only a small minority felt this way; many of the participants were reassured by the fact that the person had to be brought before a judge within 24 hours if they were arrested. Some Group 1 participants in Halifax pointed out that someone who is not a Canadian citizen could be held for an indefinite period of time, based on very little prior evidence.

Qualitatively, a significant minority, mostly among French-speaking Group 2 participants in Montreal and Quebec City and Group 2 participants in Halifax and Regina, felt that these investigative and preventive arrest powers "go too far" and threaten our civil rights. Again, the word McCarthyism was used, as were the terms military state and police state, which reminded participants of Nazi Germany during World War II. Basically, these participants did not consider these provisions to be very useful.

In addition, despite the earlier discussion on the definition of a terrorist activity, a few participants expressed concern about what constitutes a terrorist offence. These participants wondered if one could be charged with terrorism as a result of using verbal threats or "jokes" (e.g. "I am so mad at my employer that I am going to blow up the office") or affiliation with a terrorist group. This provision put participants on their guard.

You have to be careful what you say in public. (Halifax, Group 1)

These lines of thinking also called into question the perceived usefulness of the new investigative and preventive arrest powers.

Attitudes towards Risk of Abuse

Many participants stated that they trusted the Government and the police not to abuse these powers and did not feel threatened as citizens. Most pointed out that as Caucasian and Canadian citizens, they were not particularly worried about being labelled as terrorists.

Participants who belong to a visible minority group were clearly more cautious and pointed out that people of Middle Eastern descent were the most at risk of being the object of profiling.

Some claimed that even though they themselves may not be a target, people of Middle Eastern descent could become victims of abuse under the new investigative and preventive arrest powers. They feared that it might give rise to a form of racism, given that there have been reported cases of 'racial profiling' of other visible minority groups by the police in some cities. Furthermore, based on the experience of friends or relatives at the border or at airports since September 11, 2001, a few participants claimed that this profiling is already taking place.

If I walk through security at the same time as someone wearing a turban, who is going to get searched? (Halifax, Group 1)

Participants also commented that the images used by the media to portray terrorism further perpetuate stereotypes and are not helpful. Most of the terrorist incidents that participants had heard of seemed to involve attacks perpetrated by persons of Middle Eastern descent. The Maher Arar affair has been a major contributing factor to that point of view.

A few participants were concerned that the police might unfairly target Canadians who are part of visible minority groups but who are not of Middle Eastern descent.

Participants appeared to be divided on whether or not targeting minorities is an acceptable risk. For some, racial profiling is something they viscerally oppose; they view it as morally wrong and believe it should not be practiced or condoned. Others, who claimed to be "realists," pointed out that most, if not all, terrorists involved in suicide bombings and major attacks against civilians were of Middle Eastern descent. They expected that the police might, therefore, pay more attention to people of Middle Eastern descent. According to these participants, if the power was misused, it was for the 'greater good.'

There will inevitably be some misuse, but the public good takes precedence. (Toronto, Group 1)

Desire for Information

Many participants across both age groups and in all cities thought that these new investigative and preventive arrest powers should be communicated to the public. This would demonstrate that the Government was doing something to combat terrorism, and it might increase the level of public confidence.

If we knew more about this, we would have more respect for the Government because at least we would be aware that they were doing something. (Toronto, Group 2)

3.3.6 Mechanisms Associated with Investigative and Preventive Arrest Powers

The Sunset Clause

Participants were informed that the investigative and preventive arrest powers will disappear after five years unless the House of Commons and the Senate pass a resolution to extend the provision for another five years. This sunset clause brought a certain measure of reassurance to some participants, and they expected that the provision would indeed be extended for another five years, especially given the serious nature of terrorism. While a vast majority understood the sunset clause, a few participants mistakenly thought that after five years the provision would go away, thereby making us vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

The terrorists could just wait until the end of five years and then attack. (Halifax, Group 2)

When it was explained that the sunset clause meant that the provisions of the Act would be reviewed after five years, these participants then agreed that it was a good idea.

Participants noted that the clause was a useful tool in case any revisions to the new investigative and preventive arrest powers need to be made. It promotes the 'checks and balances' of the process.

Reporting Obligation

Participants were also informed that the Solicitor General and the Minister of Justice must report annually to Parliament on the use of these new powers and that this annual report is available to the public on departmental Internet sites. Some participants were reassured and commented that it may ensure that the police do not abuse the new powers they have been given under the Act. Many participants wondered what type of information this Parliamentary report contains, and a few said that they were going to try to find the report on their own time.

Other participants, particularly in Toronto and Regina, thought that the new investigative and preventive arrest powers should initially be reviewed more often by Parliament in order to reduce and/or eliminate any potential abuse by police.

A significant minority across both age groups and in all cities were not convinced that the sunset clause or the annual reporting to Parliament will curb abuse. They felt that if a police officer was pre-disposed to abuse these powers, then he or she will do so and that "it only takes one person accused of abusing the power to ruin the whole process." A few participants, particularly in Halifax Group 2, were of the opinion that the police are already "drunk with power" and that these new investigative tools give the police "too much power."

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