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Chinese online education app Zuoyebang raises $1.6 billion from investors including Alibaba

The rivalry between China’s top online learning apps has become even more intense this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest company to score a significant funding round is Zuoyebang, which announced today (link in Chinese) that it has raised a $1.6 billion Series E+ from investors including Alibaba Group. Other participants included returning investors Tiger Global Management, SoftBank Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital China and FountainVest Partners.

Zuoyebang’s latest announcement comes just six months after it announced a $750 million Series E led by Tiger Global and FountainVest. The latest financing brings Zuoyebang’s total raised so far to $2.93 billion. The company did not disclose its latest worth, but Reuters reported in September that it was raising at a $10 billion valuation.

One of Zuoyebang’s main competitors is Yuanfudao, which announced in October that it had reached a $15.5 billion valuation after closing a $2.2 billion round led by Tencent. This pushed Yuanfudao ahead of Byju as the world’s most valuable ed-tech company. Another popular online learning app in China is Yiqizuoye, which is backed by Singapore’s Temasek.

Chinese live tutoring app Yuanfudao is now worth $15.5 billion

Zuoyebang offers online courses, live lessons and homework help for kindergarten to 12th grade students, and claims about 170 million monthly active users, about 50 million of whom use the service each day. In comparison, there were about 200 million K-12 students in 2019 in China, according to the Ministry of Education (link in Chinese).

In fall 2020, the total number of students in Zuoyebang’s paid live-stream classes reached more than 10 million, setting an industry record, the company claims. While a lot of the growth was driven by the pandemic, Zuoyebang founder Hou Jianbin said in the company’s funding announcement that it expects online education to continue growing in the longer term, and will invest in K-12 classes and expand its produt categories.

Chinese online learning app Zuoyebang raises $750M

 


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Google reportedly tightens grip on research into ‘sensitive topics’

Google is currently under fire for apparently pushing out a researcher whose work warned of bias in AI, and now a report from Reuters says others doing such work at the company have been asked to “strike a positive tone” and undergo additional reviews for research touching on “sensitive topics.”

Reuters, citing researchers at the company and internal documents, reports that Google has implemented new controls in the last year, including an extra round of inspection for papers on certain topics and seemingly an increase in executive interference at later stages of research.

That certainly appears to have been the case with Dr. Timnit Gebru, an AI researcher at Google whose resignation seems to have been forced under confusing circumstances, following friction between her and management over work that her team was doing. (I’ve asked Gebru and Google for comment on the story.)

Among the “sensitive” topics, according to an internal webpage seen by Reuters, are: “the oil industry, China, Iran, Israel, COVID-19, home security, insurance, location data, religion, self-driving vehicles, telecoms and systems that recommend or personalize web content.”

It’s clear that many of these issues are indeed sensitive, though advising researchers to take care when addressing them seems superfluous considering the existence of ethics boards, peer review, and other ordinary controls on research. One researcher who spoke to Reuters warned that this sort of top-down interference from Google could soon get “into a serious problem of censorship.”

This is in addition to the fundamental issue of vital research being conducted under the auspices of a company for which it may or may not be in their interest to publish. Naturally large private research institutions have existed for nearly as long as organized scientific endeavor, but companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and others exert an enormous influence over fields like AI and have good reason to avoid criticism of lucrative technologies while shouting their usefulness from every rooftop.

Google CEO says company will review events leading up to Dr. Timnit Gebru’s departure


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VCs dispense with niceties during Capitol riots: “Never talk to me again”

It was hard not to feel emotional today, as the world watched for more than four hours as rioters stormed into and throughout the Capitol building in Washington to disrupt the certification of the election win of incoming U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden. They’d been encouraged earlier in the afternoon by outgoing President Donald Trump to head to the building and protest what he falsely claimed yet again was a stolen election, a lie he began to spread the evening of the U.S. election in November.

While members of Congress called on Trump to make a statement rebuking the rioters’ actions from their undisclosed locations, he instead encouraged his supporters over Twitter, writing of the “sacred landslide election victory” that was “so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots” and later posting a video in which repeated his lies about a “landslide election that was stolen from us.”

It was the first time in American history that supporters of the losing presidential candidate forcibly disrupted the official counting of electoral votes, as noted earlier in the evening by PBS. And while Trump’s tweets were later deleted by Twitter for “repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy,” the move was viewed by many as too little and too late, including by Silicon Valley investors, a wide number of whom let loose their fury toward the outgoing administration and its enablers.

So many of us have held off on this post in the name of balance and decency. If you still support Trump after this, FUCK YOU and never talk to me again.

— Ryan Sarver (@rsarver) January 6, 2021

What’s happening in DC is a terrorist attack on the US gov & should be dealt w/ as such

One warning to stand down, then head shot

The deference to white domestic terrorist orgs is appalling & must end

If black folks were assaulting the Capitol, there’d be helicopter gunships

— Matt Ocko (@mattocko) January 6, 2021

I’m sorry Hawley, I can’t hear you over the first pump to the MAGA crowd earlier. Sit the fuck down. (Nice double mask by Romney though!)

— M.G. Siegler (@mgsiegler) January 7, 2021

A lingering question is whether the ignominious day — one on which a dozen Senate Republicans and dozens more Republican House members had planned to object to the certification of the election results — will begin to polarize people further or whether, following Trump’s departure, some of that fury begins to subside instead.

Some investors, at least, say their anger has always had more to do with basic human decency, which seemed frequently to take a backseat during the Trump administration.

Deena Shakir of Lux Capital used to work for the Obama administration and is transparent about her political perspective on Twitter. But she says of today’s events that they “are not about politics. What we have witnessed is an affront to democracy, an assault on American history, and a gruesome reflection of the divided nation we live in.”

Hunter Walk — who cofounded the venture firm Homebrew and today tweeted, “don’t be putting [Trump son-in-law and White House advisor] Jared Kushner on cap tables when this is all said and done” — echoes the sentiment. “I’m not afraid to have a strong public voice on issues I consider to be urgent and essential human rights questions.”

As for whether the shock of today might make it harder to fund or partner with a team who supported Trump’s ascendency, Walk suggests it won’t, that business is business. “We fund wonderful entrepreneurs and employ no purity tests on whether they agree with us 100%. I’m certain we’ve backed people who sit to our political left and to our political right – that’s not an issue for us and not an issue for them.”

To the extent that Walk’s public political stance may turn off some talented founders who “would just prefer their investors shut up and write checks,” that’s “ok,” too, says Walk. “We don’t believe we need to compromise our values in order to be successful.”

Shakir meanwhile suggests that she doesn’t always have the luxury of tuning out politics entirely. For one thing, she considers those who terrorized the nation’s capital today “angered perpetrators of a jingoistic, supremacist ideology that is not only normalized but actually incited by the highest branch of our government and amplified via social media.”

More, she notes, “Given my focus on healthcare, so much of my own thesis development and so many of my conversations have inevitably been informed by the pandemic, which—for better or worse—has become politicized.”

Try as she might to bifurcate politics from work, it’s futile right now, Shakir says. “These events and policies inform our present and our future, affect the markets that value our companies, and contribute to trends and white spaces.”

Today, she adds, they also “reflect our values as a nation and as human beings.”


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Snapchat locks President Donald Trump’s account

Snapchat locked President Donald Trump’s account after pro-Trump rioters stormed the United States Capitol. A Snap spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that the action was taken on Wednesday and added that the company will monitor the situation closely before re-evaluating its decision.

This is not the first time Snap has taken action against Trump’s account over concerns about dangerous rhetoric from the president. In June, it announced content from Trump’s Snapchat would no longer be promoted in its Discover tab, and would only be visible to users if they subscribe to or search for it.

In a blog post published shortly before Snap announced its decision, co-founder and chief executive officer Evan Spiegel said that Snapchat “simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform.”

Snapchat is no longer promoting Trump’s posts

Unlike many other social media platforms, Snapchat was created for users to communicate with friends instead of a wider audience, the Snap spokesperson said. It has focused on making it harder to spread misinformation by relying on moderated and vetted content. For example, the Discover tab only features content from editorial partners like Reuters and other news organizations.

Twitter also locked Trump out of his account after forcing the removal of three tweets, but that action may last for only twelve hours. Facebook and Instagram locked Trump out of posting for 24 hours and blocked the #StormTheCapitol hashtag.

Many activists are calling for Twitter and Facebook to make their bans permanent, with ethics organization Accountable Tech tweeting that “the violent assault on the Capitol today has been heartbreaking, but not entirely unexpected. Sadly, Twitter and Facebook’s preparedness and response has been wildly inadequate. Simply labeling incitements of violence is not enough.”

Color of Change, activist groups step up pressure to kick Trump off Twitter, Facebook


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California vegan egg startup Eat Just yokes itself to China’s fast food chain

Eat Just, a food startup from San Francisco making chicken-less eggs, has ambitions to crack the Chinese market where consumer appetite for plant-based food is growing and other Western vegan substitute brands like Beyond became available in recent quarters.

The startup said this week it will be suppling to fast-food chain Dicos, a local rival to McDonald’s and KFC in China. The agreement will see Eat Just add its plant-based eggs to the restaurant’s breakfast items across more than 500 locations. The eggs are derived from a legume called mung beans, which have long been a popular ingredient for soup, noodles and dessert in China.

At Dicos in major Chinese cities, consumers will find Eat Just eggs in breakfast burgers, bagel sandwiches and Western-style breakfast plates. That diversifies the Dicos plant-based menu which already includes a vegan chicken burger supplied by local startup Starfield. Dicos also offers a gateway into China’s low-tier cities where it has built a stronghold and can potentially help evangelize plant-based proteins in communities beyond China’s urban yuppies. The chain operates a total of 2,600 stores in China and serves 600 million customers a year.

Eat Just first entered China in 2019 and currently generates less than 5% of its revenue from the country, Andrew Noyes, head of global communications at Eat Just, told TechCrunch. But over time, the company expects China to account for more than half of its revenue. Ten of its 160 employees are based in China.

Eat Just’s vegan egg recipe / Photo: Eat Just

“We have been intentional about starting small, going slow and hiring people who know the market and understand how to build a sustainable business there. We’ve also been focused on finding the right partners to work with on downstream manufacturing, sales and distribution, and that work continues,” said Noyes.

The partnership with Dicos arrived on the heels of Eat Just’s announcement to set up an Asia subsidiary. The nine-year-old company, formerly Hampton Creek, has raised over $300 million from prominent investors including Li Ka-Shing, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures. It was last valued at $1.2 billion.

Before its tie-up with Dicos, Eat Just had already been selling online in China through Alibaba and JD.com among other retail channels. Its China business is currently growing by 70% year-over-year.

While there’s no shortage of strong competition in the plant-based food race in China, Eat Just claims it’s taken a unique angle by zeroing in on eggs.

“Plant-based meat companies offer products that pair deliciously with Just Egg,” the brand name of the startup’s main product, Noyes noted.

“Plant-based foods are increasing in popularity among Chinese consumers and more sustainable eating is becoming part of a national dialogue about the feeding of the country in the future. China produces about 435 billion eggs per year and demand for protein is increasing.”

Indeed, Euromonitor predicted that China, the world’s largest meat-consuming country, would see its “free from meat” market size grow to $12 billion by 2023, compared to $10 billion in 2018.

Beyond Burger arrives in Alibaba’s grocery stores in China


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TikTok rolls out its first lidar-powered AR effect

Snapchat was among the first apps to leverage the iPhone 12 Pro’s LiDAR Scanner for AR, but now TikTok has followed suit. The social video app confirmed today it has launched its first-ever lidar-powered effect to help its users ring in the new year. The effect features an AR ball, similar to the one that drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. After a countdown, the ball drops and explodes to fill the room with confetti, as well as a floating “2021” in the air.

Support for LiDAR, or light detection and ranging, was introduced on the new flagship 5G iPhone models, the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, in the fall. The technology helps the iPhone better understand the world around you, by measuring how long it takes for light to reach an object in the space and reflect back.

Along with improvements to the iPhone’s machine learning capabilities and dev frameworks, this allows for more immersive augmented reality (AR) experiences.

Snapchat, an early adopter of the technology, had first used the new LiDAR Scanner to create a Lens in its app where flowers and grasses would grow in the room around you. The Lens included virtual vegetation that even climbed up the walls and around the cabinets in the room, for example.

To ring in 2021 we released our first AR effect on the new iPhone 12 Pro, using LiDAR technology which allows us to create effects that interact with your environment – visually bridging the digital and physical worlds. We're excited to develop more innovative effects in 2021! pic.twitter.com/6yFD2FfHta

— TikTok_Comms (@tiktok_comms) January 6, 2021

Similarly, TikTok’s effect aims to use LiDAR’s understanding of the room to land the confetti more realistically after the ball explodes.

In the example video the company published on Twitter, it showed the confetti covering the floor, sofa and throw pillows, much as it would in real life. This effect wasn’t perfect by any means — it was still very clear this was an AR experience and not real confetti — but it was an improvement over AR effects that lack the same spatial awareness.

TikTok described the effect as being able to visually bridge the digital and physical worlds, thanks to how the AR effects interact with the user’s environment. It’s available globally, with the exception of a few select countries.

Of course, fun AR effects are only one of many use cases for something like lidar. The technology is also being adopted by apps that let you scan to create 3D models, like 3D Scanner App, or those that help with interior design, like RoomScan LiDAR, or even games, like the Apple Arcade title, Hot Lava.

TikTok says it plans to roll out “more innovative effects” over the course of 2021.

Apple unveils its flagship 5G phones, the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max


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State Department reportedly orders diplomats to stop posting on social media after U.S. Capitol riots

The State Department ordered diplomats to stop posting on social media after pro-Trump rioters stormed the United States Capitol, reports CNN, citing three diplomatic sources. Diplomats overseas were also told by the under secretary for public affairs to remove scheduled content for Facebook, Hootsuite and Twitter until told otherwise, and that planned social media posts from the State Department’s main accounts were also being suspended.

According to CNN, diplomats are usually only told to pause social media posts after a terrorist attack or major natural disaster.

As of late Wednesday evening in the United States, the main State Department Twitter account had only retweeted a thread by Secretary of State MIchael Pompeo in which he said “the storming of the U.S. Capitol today is unacceptable.”

Social media allowed a shocked nation to watch a coup attempt in real time

So far, the official Instagram accounts of the State Department’s Instagram and Pompeo and the State Department’s YouTube have made no posts after the rioting at the Capitol, while the State Department’s Facebook page has a post repeating Pompeo’s Twitter thread.

TechCrunch has contacted the State Department for comment.

Social media platforms scrambled to react after an extraordinary and terrifying day of violence that resulted in the deaths of four people. Rioters breached the Capitol early Wednesday afternoon, as electoral votes were being counted, forcing lawmakers to evacuate (the joint session was later reconvened).

On Wednesday afternoon, Twitter required the removal of three of President Donald Trump’s tweets and locked his account for twelve hours, before stating that he would be permanently suspended for future violations of its Civic Integrity policy. Facebook and Instagram announced that the president would barred from posting to his accounts for 24 hours and began blocking content posted to the #StormTheCapitol hashtag.

Twitter locks Trump out of his account for at least 12 hours

Facebook and Instagram block #StormTheCapitol, lock Trump out of posting for 24 hours


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Color of Change, activist groups step up pressure to kick Trump off Twitter, Facebook

Color of Change, the nonprofit civil rights advocacy group, along with a growing number of other organizations, called for social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook to remove President Donald Trump from their platforms, following a chaotic day of protests and rioting that led a mob of pro-Trump supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol and prompted a lockdown and an evacuation of lawmakers.

Color of Change and other activist organizations have said that major tech and financial service companies are complicit in the insurrection in Washington, D.C. and called for social media to take action. Twitter has locked the president of the United States’ Twitter account and forced the removal of three offending tweets, but the social media platform has not removed him from the platform altogether. The lock of the Twitter account will last for at least 12 hours.

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson tweeted Wednesday “Enough is enough. It’s time for Facebook and Twitter to kick Trump off their platforms. We’ve been in contact with @Facebook and @Twitter leadership about this but we need your help.”

Twitter locks Trump out of his account for at least 12 hours

The organization also launched a petition that people can use to make a direct appeal to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The petition reads:

Dear CEO Jack Dorsey,

Donald Trump has historically violated your terms of service with impunity and now, as a result of his promotion and facilitation of today’s chaos, insurrectionists have stormed our Senate building leaving Senators, staffers, and building employees fearing for their lives. Trump’s tweets have endangered the lives of millions of Americans, from his rants cheering on white supremacists to now advocating for the National Guard to use deadly force against Americans who are protesting against police killings. There is no excuse for allowing this dangerous user to exploit your platform It’s time to #KickTrumpOffTwitter.

Numerous other activist organizations, business groups and tech leaders have used social media to condemn the events Wednesday. Accountable Tech, an ethics organization, tweeted Wednesday that the violent assault has been heartbreaking, but not expected. “Sadly, Twitter and Facebook’s preparedness and response has been wildly inadequate. Simply labeling incitements of violence is not enough.”

The violent assault on the Capitol today has been heartbreaking, but not entirely unexpected. Sadly, Twitter and Facebook's preparedness and response has been wildly inadequate. Simply labeling incitements of violence is not enough.

— Accountable Tech (@accountabletech) January 6, 2021

Other organizations such as the U.S. Travel Association, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Business Round Table offered their own condemnations of the events, but didn’t directly criticize social media for its involvement.

Business Roundtable, whose members are chief executive officers of major United States corporations, focused efforts on Trump and called for an end to the chaos and a peaceful transition of power. Others such as the National Association of Manufacturers used stronger language, noting that the protesters supporting Trump was an act of “sedition” and “mob rule” and urged Vice President Mike Pence to “seriously consider” invoking the 25th amendment.


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Reddit ‘taking action’ on site violations as rioters storm US Capitol

As chaos and violence have erupted in Washington, D.C., social media platforms are grappling with the fallout. A spokesperson for Reddit tells TechCrunch:

Reddit’s site-wide policies prohibit content that promotes hate or encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence. In accordance with this, we have been proactively reaching out to moderators to remind them of our policies and to offer support or resources as needed. We are also taking action on reported violations.

Pro-Trump mob storms the US Capitol, touting ‘Stop the Steal’ conspiracy

The site reportedly hasn’t seen a major change in user activity leading up to today’s  storming of the U.S. Capitol building — apparently owing in part to the banning of a number of subreddits, including The_Donald, over violations earlier this year.

The statement follows similar wording from Twitter:

In regard to the ongoing situation in Washington, DC, Twitter’s Trust & Safety teams are working to protect the public conversation occurring on the service and will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules.

It seems clear that much of the current reaction to the situation is in flux as this unprecedented and dark moment continues to unfold in Washington, D.C. For now, much of Reddit’s content control lies in the hands of site moderators.

Trump suspended from Twitch, as Reddit bans the ‘The_Donald’ and additional subreddits


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Tech leaders speak out about platforms’ roles in US Capitol riots

After pro-Trump extremists violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, a number of tech executives and industry leaders are calling on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to more aggressively curb the president’s messages amplifying and endorsing violence.

After Trump released a video calling the extremists “very special” and telling them to go home, Facebook and Twitter have taken down the content. Twitter has locked Donald Trump’s Twitter account for at least 12 hours, warning that “any future violations” of Twitter rules will result in permanent suspension of the account.

The riot triggered the platforms, after long scrutiny, to finally react to Trump’s incendiary tweets and messaging. As the situation continues to play out, some prominent tech figures see the root of the riots as the platforms that ignored and amplified misinformation surrounding the election, allowing violent rhetoric to spin out of control in the final days of the Trump presidency.

Pro-Trump mob storms the US Capitol, touting ‘Stop the Steal’ conspiracy

Chris Sacca, one of the earliest investors in Twitter, wrote “you’ve got blood on your hands, [Jack] and Zuck. For four years you’ve rationalized this terror. Inciting violent treason is not a free speech exercise. If you work at those companies, it’s on you too. Shut it down.”

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, added to Sacca’s remark, saying: “there are a lot of hard questions we’re going to have to answer for our children.” Ohanian left Reddit’s board in 2020 following Black Lives Matter protests.

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, wrote that both companies needed to act, arguing that the “labeling won’t do it” and that Twitter and Facebook “have to cut him off.”

There have been good arguments for private companies to not silence elected officials, but all those arguments are predicated on the protection of constitutional governance.

Twitter and Facebook have to cut him off. There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won't do it. pic.twitter.com/Nji6A4sJum

— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) January 6, 2021

Tech platforms have repeatedly come under fire for failing to address the rise of misinformation and groups coalescing around conspiracy theories. Twitter’s latest response has been the introduction of tags to flag potential misinformation.

Ellen Pao, tech investor and the former CEO of Reddit, argues today’s chaos is directly linked to Dorsey’s inaction. In November, Pao and Laura Gómez, a former tech founder and CEO, called on Dorsey to limit Trump’s influence on Twitter, explicitly accusing Trump of using Twitter to incite “a coup.”

“[We] told them to do the right thing. They didn’t. And here we are,” Pao wrote on Twitter today.

This is on Twitter and @jack. In November, @laura and I told them to do the right thing. They didn't. And here we are. https://t.co/U4qKCa1T17 pic.twitter.com/nUorO3HSt6

— Ellen K. Pao (@ekp) January 6, 2021

Timnit Gebru, a top researcher who recently was fired from Google’s AI team, slammed Facebook and Twitter, but further placed blame on YouTube, which she says has “completely managed to get out of the spotlight” for facilitating hate speech.

What happened today here, platforms like @Facebook @YouTube and @Twitter have been facilitating a lot of that in countries that are not considered "important" with unfettered misinformation, hate speech and what have you.

— Timnit Gebru (@timnitGebru) January 6, 2021

A recent video from Trump, where he calls the rioters “special people” and urges them to go home, has recently been taken down from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Guy Rosen, VP of Integrity at Facebook, tweeted that the events are an “emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump’s video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.” Facebook released an official statement as well.

With Inauguration Day just two weeks out, platforms will continue to play an intense role in safeguarding a peaceful transfer of power. Today’s events feel like a tipping point. The terrorism has pushed Silicon Valley tech figures to criticize some of the industry’s most powerful leaders and implore them to act before further violence takes place.

“Let me say in no uncertain terms @jack @vijaya @kayvz: If you do not suspend Donald Trump’s Twitter account for the next day at least, this mob attack on Congress is also on you. Sorry, but he has incited violence for days, using your tools in large part and you need to act now,” tech media figure Kara Swisher wrote in a post on Twitter.

Let me say in no uncertain terms @jack @vijaya @kayvz: If you do not suspend Donald Trump’s Twitter account for the next day at least, this mob attack on Congress is also on you. Sorry, but he has incited violence for days, using your tools in large part and you need to act now.

— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) January 6, 2021

Color of Change, activist groups step up pressure to kick Trump off Twitter, Facebook


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