Peter Thiel’s Free Speech for Race Science Crusade at Cambridge UniversityREVEALED
In a special investigation, Nafeez Ahmed reveals how Palantir-linked Donald Trump lobbyists are using ‘free speech’ to normalise white nationalism on UK campuses
A network of academics influencing Government policy on ‘free speech’ in universities is being steered by pro-Donald Trump lobbyists and donors linked to Republican billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel – the chairman and co-founder of CIA-backed data analytics giant Palantir Technologies, a special investigation by Byline Times can reveal.
Sources at Cambridge University have confirmed to Byline Times that the network of conservative academics – many of whom ended up mobilising around Toby Young’s Free Speech Union (FSU) and writing for Claire Lehmann’s Quillette magazine – has been supported from its inception by Peter Thiel’s top chief of staff.
The network also includes organisations financed by Republican Party operatives and donors who support former US President Donald Trump.
This UK-based ‘Thiel network’ first began to come together in 2017 – a year after Trump took office – with Thiel’s top chief of staff attending regular meetings and ongoing discussions with a small group of Christian theologians at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Divinity.
From early on, the discussions involved the controversial public intellectual Jordan Peterson. Over the years, the circle of academics widened to include academics from several other universities.
Their common concern was the increasing threat from the advancement of a ‘liberal’ agenda to traditional Christian religious and theological beliefs – including an unnerving fascination with race science.
The revelations raise urgent concerns about whether Peter Thiel’s funding and support for members of this network is interfering with higher education standards and democratic process in Britain.
As Palantir consolidates its work with the Government through the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence and other agencies – much of which is shrouded in secrecy – and as the Home Office ploughs ahead with plans that could empower the Government to unilaterally deprive two out of every five people from non-white ethnic minority backgrounds of citizenship, this investigation points to the question of whether the resurgence of long-discredited scientific racism is now influencing Government policy via shadowy right-wing American lobbying groups.
Jordan Peterson and The Bell Curve
For many of the conservative theologians at Cambridge University, the breaking point emerged over transgender rights. Things came to a head in March 2019, when Cambridge University withdrew its acceptance of a visiting fellow application from Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.
Peterson is most well-known for having had a profound impact – particularly on young men – due to his ‘self-help’ advice targeted at empowering individuals.
One author, Darren Geist, writing for an American conservative think tank in Princeton, argues that Peterson is “a bloody good clinical psychologist grounded in Christian archetypes and values and focused on treating the existential despair in our society” and even credits him with sparking a “spiritual and intellectual transformation in me that led me to the Church”. Much of the attraction of this work, Geist says, has been Peterson’s focus on the idea that meaning can only be found through responsibility “for our lives, our friends and family, our communities”. Responsibility is what can “keep us going in the face of the tragedy of our mortal, fallen existence”.
Yet, the value of this message, which has rocketed Peterson from academic obscurity into a world-touring career followed by tens of millions of people, has been marred by a dark side. One of the darkest and little known aspects of this – brought to light here for the first time by Byline Times – is his admiration for a book described in Scientific American as “the flagship modern work reporting on racial differences in IQ score”.
Described by The Times as an “alt-right darling”, Peterson has been widely criticised for claiming that gender and class hierarchies are a function of the natural order, despite having little meaningful expertise in these areas. He became an icon among far-right fans after releasing a series of videos attacking a bill that would ban discrimination against people on the basis of ‘gender identity’ or ‘gender expression’. Describing the bill as an attack on free speech, he added that he would refuse to refer to transgender students by their preferred pronouns.
At the time that Peterson’s fellowship invitation to Cambridge University was rescinded, a spokesperson for the university explained the decision by stating that Cambridge “is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot”.
Fast forward to November 2021 and Jordan Peterson was back. By most accounts, his return was a success. Over a few weeks, Peterson participated in a series of seminars and talks at Cambridge University at the invitation of Dr James Orr, a lecturer in the philosophy of religion at Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity. One of these events – ‘Christianity and the Crisis of the West’ – took place on 22 November and was convened by Dr Orr through his role as director of a Christian charity, Trinity Forum Europe. The charity has close links to the Conservative Party through its director, former MP and Cabinet minister and now priest Jonathan Aitken.
But, according to academics at Cambridge University who spoke anonymously to Byline Times, Peterson’s return was not a victory for ‘free speech’ as Dr Orr and his colleagues claimed. Instead, it was the culmination of a concerted campaign by what one of them dubbed “the Thiel network” to use free speech as a cover to wage war on the perceived liberal threat to heartfelt theological beliefs, and to normalise pseudoscientific theories of scientific racism.
Byline Times has previously revealed that, in the same capacity, Dr Orr was the key organiser of an event the week before Jordan Peterson’s visit involving American white nationalist extremist Charles Murray – one of the most well-known advocates of the idea that black people have lower IQs than white people due largely to genetic inferiority, and that nothing can be done to improve this situation.
Dr Orr – who is also a Government advisor and Ministry of Justice appointee – had co-hosted the event with Cambridge University PhD student Robert Henderson. The Ministry of Justice declined to comment.
Murray is the co-author of the 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, whose claims about race and IQ relied on pseudoscientific research financed by the Pioneer Fund – a notorious Nazi eugenics foundation established in 1937. The book’s research was so questionable that it was dismissed by the American Behavioral Scientist journal as “a fraud” in the sense of “a deliberate, self-conscious misrepresentation of the evidence”.
Jordan Peterson’s own fraught relationship to race issues (according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which claims he has a track record of promoting revisionist falsehoods about Hitler, the Holocaust and Nazism) appeared to surface during his visit last month to Cambridge. While in the UK, he joined a BBC Question Time panel on 18 November where, in response to a discussion about the pattern of racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, he used his hands to make air quotes while referring to the word “racism” which he dismissed as a “global and vague term”.
Unknown to most, Peterson appears to be sympathetic to scientific racism despite disavowing far-right views – but tends to only admit this, and in carefully guarded terms, in specific discussions.
In 2017, he was interviewed by white nationalist extremist Stefan Molyneux who openly argues that blacks are “collectively less intelligent”, admits not viewing “humanity as a single species”, promotes eugenics, and warns of the “quasi-extinction” of whites “in the not so distant future”.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center – the leading civil rights law firm tracking extremism in America – Molyneux is an apologist for South African apartheid who promotes the belief that “non-white human beings”, particularly Hispanics and blacks, “are racially and genetically inferior to whites and that this, above all other factors, explains the present and the past”.
In one (now deleted) YouTube clip, Molyneux complains: “White people will bend over backwards to accommodate you, but when they finally get that they’re just being taken advantage of… you will see a backlash, and that backlash will be quick, decisive, and brutal.”
In their interview, Peterson laid out why he agreed with Molyneux’s views. “The IQ literature reveals that which no one would want to be the case, which is that there are profound and virtually irremediable differences in people’s cognitive performance, and that those differences have a very solid biological and hereditable basis,” Peterson told Molyneux – ignoring all manner of empirical evidence contradicting this claim. “No one wants to hear that. No one wants to hear that it’s biological, they don’t want to hear that it’s hereditable, they don’t want to hear that it’s permanent, they don’t want to hear that it’s irremediable, and that it actually has a practical consequence.”
Molyneux responded with: “And even worse they don’t want to hear about differences in genders and ethnicities, that is to me one of the most painful things that I’ve ever learned in my entire life… It is one of the great heartbreaks when it comes to the dream of pure egalitarianism.”
Appearing to agree with Molyneux, Peterson replied that “there are differences in ethnicity that don’t look trivial”, going on to claim that this explains why Ashkenazi Jews have, on average, a higher IQ than white Caucasians.
“This is something that has been so strenuously avoided since The Bell Curve first came out 20 odd years ago,” added Molyneux, once again prompting Peterson to indicate his agreement.
“So we have a really profound problem that again no one’s willing to talk about,” said Peterson. “And that is the cognitive stratification of society that was laid out to some degree in The Bell Curve in the 1990s.”
In 2018, in discussion with author Douglas Murray – who has been accused of promoting far-right conspiracy theories such as the baseless ‘Great Replacement’ – Peterson once again approvingly referred to Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve.
During the discussion, Peterson explicitly objected to the idea that “ethnic differences” in IQ tests could be the result of bias, limitations of IQ testing, environmental or cultural factors, or wider engrained structural inequalities – again ignoring the considerable relevant evidence.
“Our hierarchies are increasingly IQ predicated,” he said. “I believe, now, that there’s a nexus of ideas that mark out the left as too extreme: diversity, inclusivity, equity, white privilege – that’s not a phrase I’m very fond of – and exaggerated claims of systemic racism. It’s kind of like a mantra. It’s something like that, as well as the verbiage around the oppressive patriarchy.”
Jordan Peterson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Genesis of a Movement
The hosting of both Charles Murray and Jordan Peterson by Cambridge University academics is the culmination of an ongoing campaign to normalise anti-liberal ideas driven by individuals closely linked to Peter Thiel, according to sources at the university.
Early meetings of the “Thiel network” first occurred around 2016 and 2017, and were presided over by Thiel’s chief of staff.
They involved a number of like-minded academics – particularly Michael Hurley, professor of literature and theology, and a director of studies in English at Trinity College; and Douglas Hedley, professor of the philosophy of religion and director of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism.
The circle of conversation widened over the years to include Dr James Orr; Douglas Murray; Professor Nigel Biggar, director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University; Arif Ahmed, reader in philosophy at Cambridge; Stephen J Blackwood, the founder of the unaccredited ‘free speech’ university Ralston College; the late philosopher Roger Scruton; and Jordan Peterson himself.
As more academics and voices were pulled in, not everyone engaged by the network ended up meeting Thiel’s chief of staff – but there was a clear alignment of vision.
None of these individuals responded to Byline Times‘ requests for comment.
In the summer of 2017, Peterson had personally reached out to Thiel. Blake Masters, chief operations officer at Thiel Capital, replied enthusiastically to arrange a meeting. Later, Peterson met Thiel and engaged with senior members of his team. According to Esquire magazine, they discussed an “unspecified future venture”.
Several of these individuals – particularly Dr James Orr, Arif Ahmed, Douglas Murray and Nigel Biggar – would go on to play leading roles in Toby Young’s Free Speech Union.
Sources at Cambridge University familiar with the meetings say that the key figure involved in the earliest conversations of this “loose coalition” of academics was Charles Vaughan, chief of staff at Thiel Capital. He was described by current and former academics at the university as playing a pivotal role in cultivating the network, and encouraging them to host Peterson.
Thiel Capital is a venture capital fund founded by Peter Thiel which provides strategic and operational support to his investment initiatives. Very little information about Vaughan other than his role at Thiel Capital is publicly available. In 2017, his predecessor Michael Kratsios joined the US Government as deputy assistant to the president for technology policy, becoming Donald Trump’s top technology advisor two years later.
His boss, Peter Thiel, was at this time heavily involved in defining the Trump administration’s political agenda. A co-founder of PayPal, board member of Facebook, and the co-founding CEO of data-mining behemoth and Pentagon contractor Palantir Technologies, Thiel had for years played a major role in the Republican Party – to which he’d donated nearly $10 million from 1990 to 2016.
In 2016 and 2017, Thiel was appointed to Trump’s Transition Team Executive Committee, donating more than $1 million to the Trump campaign. During this period of his most ardent support for Trump, Thiel had allegedly met secretly with several of the most influential leaders in the US white nationalist movement – including Kevin DeAnna, the main ideological architect of the alt-right; and Milo Yiannopoulos, whom he invited to his home for a dinner in 2016. “He’s fully enlightened, just plays it very carefully,” another far-right blogger wrote about Thiel in an email to Yiannopoulos later that year.
Yet this is also precisely the same period in which Thiel’s chief of staff was – according to Byline Times’ sources – involved in seeding the UK coalition of anti-liberal academics centred around Cambridge University.
The sources familiar with the conversations taking place among this group noted that Vaughan was a “regular fixture” at the meetings from the start and would fly out from the US to participate in gatherings at the university.
This activity appeared to follow shortly after Palantir’s alleged involvement in Cambridge Analytica, whereby employees from the firm helped it to engineer psychographic models used to build profiles of American and British voters.
One Cambridge University academic told Byline Times that, by 2017, “they were starting to think about putting together a network of people” and that it was “all a bit ambiguous what this meant – but there was talk about a media platform of some sort, and maybe people to write and contribute, starting to engage with the elite universities and try to find clever people who were sympathetic within a conservative frame”.
“It was unclear how this was playing out and what was going on,” they added. “And it was unclear why a chief of staff of Thiel was here, what exactly he was doing, and what exactly his job description was.”
Charles Vaughan’s commitment to the group coalescing around Cambridge University was consistent.
In late 2018, he flew out to a dinner at the Hawks Club – a members-only social club at Cambridge University – to meet members of the fledgling network. Jordan Peterson was also there. The meeting was held under the auspices of Ralston College. Several staff of the Faculty of Divinity attended, including Michael Hurley, Douglas Hedley and Dr James Orr.
By this time, the group had become more cohesive and clear about its aims. Conversations were increasingly focusing on the need to push back against classic ‘culture war’ issues such as abortion, but particularly transgender rights. Most people in the network were motivated by fundamentally religious and theological concerns, the sources said.
“They believed that the transgender issue proved that the liberal agenda was now going too far – and that their right to refuse this agenda on the grounds of their own theological positions was under threat,” said one academic source at Cambridge University who attended some of the meetings.
Specific support for scientific racism had never surfaced at these meetings, said the sources – but the increasing hostility toward liberalism became a focal point that they thought made the group vulnerable to a gradual process of radicalisation.
“A lot of people felt their voices were being pushed aside, and felt beleaguered and threatened,” they said. “That dissatisfaction was a fertile breeding ground for someone to come in with an organising agenda. I suspect that some of that may have had an external impetus.”
Peter Thiel is an avowed Christian, though he has refused to elaborate in detail on the nature of his beliefs. The presence of his chief of staff at the meetings appears to have provided that impetus, the source claimed.
“Charles Vaughan’s involvement illustrated a definitive connection to an external source with some serious financial weight,” they said. “As the meetings went along, I became aware there was money involved. And there was a deliberate and systematic attempt at recruitment and fostering relationships. It was unclear exactly what money was involved where, but there was a sense that you would never lack for a job if you worked with the network.”
As a result of their theological positions, many people in the network increasingly came to believe that their reservations about liberalism implied only one other alternative: authoritarianism.
“This led the group to harbour growing sympathies with some of the more divisive politics around Brexit, Trump, and related hardline tendencies to push against a pervasive liberalism,” the academic said.
But the recruitment efforts did not stop at staff in Cambridge and other universities. It increasingly extended to students, with academics in the network starting to recruit interns to work for Peter Thiel.
“This was a deliberate and systematic effort to recruit people into the group, and to mould them in a certain direction”, the source told Byline Times.
The meetings and conversations, then, seemed to pull participants further into alignment with a more cohesive political vision that, despite significant internal differences, found a common focal point: the authoritarian destruction of a liberal order that had “gone too far”.
After November 2018, this translated into continued conversations among several senior Faculty of Divinity staff, including Charles Vaughan’s input, about securing a visiting fellowship for Jordan Peterson at the university.
A Political Lobbying Network
It is, therefore, no surprise that apart from attempting to recruit staff and students into the worldview of the “Thiel network”, one academic claims that the group actively sought to influence Government policy.
An academic familiar with the meetings involving Charles Vaughan told Byline Times that the network “is the force behind the higher education bill” – the UK Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
It is claimed that the group had significant influence over the bill’s development, including testifying in parliamentary inquiries.
In February 2020, a key vehicle for this influence was launched by Toby Young in the form of the Free Speech Union. The group included several members who had coalesced around the Cambridge “Thiel network” – Dr James Orr, Arif Ahmed, Douglas Murray and Nigel Biggar.
Just a month before its launch, Young had interviewed The Bell Curve author Charles Murray on his podcast show for Quillette – “a magazine that normalises the alt-right”, according to The Nation. Toby Young is Quillette’s associate editor for London.
The interview reflected Young’s own longstanding sympathies with scientific racism. As Byline Times has previously reported, three years earlier, Young had defended some of the loudest proponents of ‘race science’ and eugenics, including Charles Murray.
Several other Free Speech Union advisors have ties to questionable research around race, IQ and genetics, including Robert Plomin and Timothy Bates.
Quillette founder Claire Lehmann has completely and unequivocally denied recent claims published in a new biography of the billionaire, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power, by Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Max Chafkin that “Thiel was secretly funding” Quillette around 2016.
Lehmann told Byline Times that Chafkin’s account is “wrong on multiple levels” and based on the claims of “a notorious internet troll and fraudster”. Peter Thiel’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
However, the social connections of key Quillette contributors to the “Thiel network” around Cambridge University points to an alignment of interests and ideology illuminating the extent to which several Quillette writers and editors operate within Peter Thiel’s sphere of influence.
An indication of this alignment is a photograph taken during Jordan Peterson’s latest visit to Cambridge University in November, in which he is joined by Andy Ngo – an early Quillette editor who left the publication after Portland newspaper The Mercury published a story revealing that Ngo had witnessed a far-right group planning violence but allegedly concealed it. Ngo has since been accused of harbouring ties with militant right-wing and far-right groups in Portland.
Standing in between them is Rob Henderson, who co-hosted Charles Murray in November at the Trinity Forum Europe event, and who is also a regular contributor to Quillette.
Henderson is now a ‘Foundation Faculty Fellow’ at a new anti-woke ‘free speech’ college linked to Peter Thiel in the US – the ‘University of Austin’ – launched earlier this year, where he is “actively participating” in its “curricular and institutional planning and design”.
The venture was launched in partnership with Joe Lonsdale, a co-founder of Palantir with Thiel, who is funding the project. A number of disgruntled academics and journalists fed up with ‘wokeism’ and sympathetic to the racist pseudoscience of Charles Murray have rallied around its non-accredited website which has so far managed to offer a series of mediocre summer courses within a narrow, self-referential far-right ideological bubble.
Among them is Sohrab Ahmari, who sits on the project’s board of advisors, and spoke at a Trinity Forum Europe event earlier in June. Another advisor, Andrew Sullivan, famously published excerpts from The Bell Curve in The New Republic, and remains fascinated with its author. Historian Niall Ferguson, a founding trustee of the ‘university’, invited Charles Murray to speak at Stanford University in 2018.
Along with many other members of the Cambridge “Thiel network”, Quillette’s Lehmann sits on the advisory board for Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, as do several other Quillette contributors. Through the Free Speech Union, then, the “Thiel network” appears to have effectively found itself with a platform to lobby the UK Government on its ‘free speech’ agenda.
For instance, the Department for Education’s report to Parliament on academic freedom in universities published in February 2021 refers to a 2019 white paper by right-wing think tank, Policy Exchange, to justify the idea that universities are suppressing free speech. One of the co-authors of that paper, Eric Kaufmann, is on the advisory board of the Free Speech Union.
Later in June 2020, a number of Free Speech Union advisors involved in the “Thiel network” co-authored written evidence submitted to the parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee inquiry into freedom of expression. Many of the themes identified in this submission – around using the Office for Students to police ‘free speech’ at universities – have since been taken up by the UK Government. Seven out of the eight co-authors of the paper are also members of the Free Speech Union’s advisory board: Nigel Biggar, Arif Ahmed, Matthew Goodwin, Eric Kaufmann, Dr James Orr, Toby Young and Paul Yowell.
Then, in September 2021, several members of this network were called to give evidence in person before the House of Commons’ Public Bill Committee, which is overseeing the Government’s new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – including Arif Ahmed, Nigel Biggar, Eric Kaufmann and Matthew Goodwin. Goodwin is currently a director at the Legatum Institute and, in October, his boss Philippa Stroud – the Institute’s CEO – was also invited by Dr James Orr to speak to Oxbridge audiences under the auspices of the Trinity Forum Europe.
Members of this network characterise themselves as politically neutral, focused on defending free speech and promoting opposing views. The Free Speech Union website, for instance, describes the organisation as “a non-partisan, mass-membership public interest body”.
But the links between this network and Peter Thiel appears to show that it is far from being non-partisan.
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Charles Vaughan’s early involvement in what a Cambridge University source described as the “force behind the higher education bill” reveals how British laws are being shaped under the influence of the same forces that shaped the Donald Trump administration.
The Department for Education refused to comment. The Free Speech Union did not respond to requests for comment.
The precise nature of the role of Thiel Capital’s chief of staff in the academic network around Cambridge University remains wrapped in secrecy. It is not known how much funding Peter Thiel or his associates and companies have provided to the network, or platforms and individuals within it.
Peter Thiel, Thiel Capital, and its chief of staff – Charles Vaughan – did not respond to Byline Times‘ requests for comment.
But Vaughan was not the only Trump lobbyist involved in the network.
Trinity Forum Europe – the charity through which Free Speech Union advisor Dr James Orr hosted Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray, Douglas Murray and Philippa Stroud, among others – also has direct ties to Republican and Trump donors in the US.
George Seay, another director of Trinity Forum Europe who has provided it some funding, is a Texas businessman and long-time Republican Party operative and donor who has advised political campaigns by Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry (Trump’s former energy secretary who was being lobbied by Thiel Capital’s Charles Vaughan in 2017).
The charity’s main financier and director is an American property mogul Thomas Hutchison III. Apart from having had a chapter published in Donald Trump’s book, The Best Real Estate Advice I Ever Received, Hutchison is a Republican Party and Trump donor, who donated to both Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
Trinity Forum Europe did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Cambridge University told Byline Times that “the university is not obliged to respond to anything” – before sending a link via email: “Please find here the University Statement on Freedom of Speech for your use”.
It did not answer questions around Peter Thiel’s influence on a network of anti-liberal academics at the university.
Free Speech for Race Pseudoscience
The parallels between Peter Thiel’s campaigning in the US and UK are revealing: Thiel’s chief of staff was involved in building up the UK ‘free speech’ network exactly while Thiel himself was ingratiating himself with the Trump administration and its white nationalist supporters.
This appears to suggest that the network’s ‘free speech’ agenda may be little more than a cover for deeper, partisan, anti-liberal political concerns. It is also consistent with Thiel’s broader interests in the US. While the context behind the Thiel connection to the Cambridge network is shrouded in mystery, the US equivalent is not.
Thiel has invested millions of dollars in support of Senate candidates campaigning on a free speech ticket. J D Vance, who reportedly received $10 million from Thiel to support his campaign, recently told a conference of the National Conservative movement that “professors are the enemy”, citing Richard Nixon. Vance has also promoted the racist Great Replacement theory which baselessly posits that white populations are being ‘replaced’ by people of colour due to immigration and integration. Another colleague of Thiel, Blake Masters, is running for the Senate in Arizona with, it is claimed, another $10 million from Thiel. His campaign is premised on the discredited conspiracy theory that Donald Trump won the 2020 elections.
With Peter Thiel’s surrogates extending their influence in the UK through the fulcrum of Cambridge University, it seems that an alarming agenda is being smuggled in under cover of defending ‘free speech’.
The UK Government’s attempt to impose new legislation on universities is not happening in a silo. Rather, it appears to be the brainchild of a transatlantic network of academics and journalists linked to Thiel, many with unnerving sympathies for long-discredited scientific racism.
In the meantime, all this is unfolding in parallel with Palantir’s intensifying stronghold over the UK Government. Earlier this year, the firm was officially named as a supplier on the Crown Commercial Service Back Office Software Framework, a new contracting route to provide software across central government departments and all other public sector bodies, including local authorities, health, police, fire and rescue – and education.
This nexus thus raises disturbing questions about how the ‘free speech’ mantra can be cynically exploited by political lobbyists with white nationalist sympathies. Far from wanting real free speech, their hope is to silence liberal speech that questions the entrenched hierarchies with which their most cherished interests and beliefs are entwined.
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