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Blind User Sues Southwest Over Web Site, Cites ADA 1205

Posted by timothy
from the welcome-to-quebec dept.
scubacuda writes "According to Law.com, Robert Gumson, a blind man who uses a program that converts website content into speech, is suing Southwest Airlines (with the help of Miami Beach, FL-based Access Now) for its website being incompatible with his screen-reader program. The case has been filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act under the untested legal theory that ADA provisions on the accessibility of public accommodations to the disabled apply to Internet Web sites just as they do to brick-and-mortar facilities like movie theaters and department stores. There have been previous lawsuits alleging that the ADA applies to the Internet, but all have settled without a ruling on the merits: 1999 the National Federation of the Blind sued AOL alleging its service was inaccessible to blind users (AOL agreed to make its sites compatible with screen reader technology); over the past two years, Access Now has sued Barnes & Noble and Claire's Stores for maintaining Web sites that allegedly violated the ADA (both settled)."
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Blind User Sues Southwest Over Web Site, Cites ADA

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  • Legal wrangling (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Raul654 (453029) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:26PM (#4399630) Homepage
    Ok, tell me this - where do you draw the line between high traffic commercial websites, and (for instance), mine?
  • by flogger (524072) <non@nonegiven> on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:31PM (#4399656) Journal
    Does this mean I am going to go out and sue all glove makers because they don't make a right hand glove with no thumb? No. That is plain stupid. The term disability means, acording to Dictionary.com [dictionary.com]
    2. A disadvantage or deficiency, ...
    3. Something that hinders or incapacitates.


    Why can we not accept that there are things that we cannot do and not sue others while pretending it is someone else's fault that we have a disability.
    Are these (the ADA) the people that made it so that there is Brail on Drive up ATM machines?

    Only in Lake Wobiegon (sp?) is everyone above average...
  • Re:Interesting (Score:3, Interesting)

    by reverse flow reactor (316530) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:38PM (#4399685)
    Banks Sued over ATM Use: Advocates for the Blind Say Mellon and PNC Should Provide Voice-Operated Machines [nfb.org]

    Now talking ATM machines are being devleoped [nfbnet.org] and installed [accessiblesociety.org].

    But don't worry, the ATM machine does not read outloud your bank balance (my, wouldn't that produce some awkward situtation), as they are going to use earphones [bankofamerica.com] or simple headphones to maintain your privacy.

  • by flogger (524072) <non@nonegiven> on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:41PM (#4399705) Journal
    Try this "Speak IT" site [trav-tech.com] and install the readers...
    Then come back to Slashdot, Highlight this whole discussion and listen...
  • by Nicopa (87617) <nico.lichtmaier @ g m ail.com> on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:47PM (#4399737)

    In their terms and conditions [iflyswa.com] "Southwest Airlines" also state that they forbid "deep linking", using robots to spider their site, or just using any program to get their pages.

    In fact, their license seems to forbids the use of any HTTP user agent to "acquire" some of their pages. Beware, by browsing their site you are risking to get sued =).

  • About time (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Eol1 (208982) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:49PM (#4399745) Homepage Journal
    About time. I used to be a lead web developer at a US public university and was delegated by my director to provide accessability for all regardless of physically handicaps. After a couple years of doing this, developing in this manner became second nature and even as a nonvisually disabled person, I became more and more annoyed by sites that just didn't care.

    It amazing me at the lack of professionalism in the web developer community for not addressesing this issue w/o legal being required to. It takes all of 15 minutes to run your site through bobby and the learning curve for meeting the W3C WAI guidelines is low. To not take the little time out of your unimpaired life to make life easier for others amazes me. Especially when 70% of it is just following good web coding practices (eg non-visual cues, alt tags, not using/requiring javascript/flash, using aural spreadsheets, etc etc). People seem to think that you can't design a site not using these items or that their site will be ugly / not satisfy the client. Both are wrong. Often you can use nice visual ques AND provide a seperate or alternate site for visually impaired people. Or just layout your site so even without visual ques, it is still usable. They aren't asking for amazing aural sites, they are asking for FUNCTIONAL aural sites. As for extra cost and time you spend designing these feature, bet that time is a hell of a lot cheaper that the multimillion dollar lawsuit you can/might get slapped with.

    Trying surfing the net with lynx for an entire day, see usable it is. After thinking how bad that is, try downloading / buying your favorite aural browser for a real eye opener. Its not pretty. Now try doing that your whole life.
  • by Cubeman (530448) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:52PM (#4399772)
    No he's not being denied access. It's more as if you were allowed into Target, but were physically unable to spend money, or something. He can have someone else read him the page too, I'm sure there's someone around him who can see. When there is a blind person who really has no way to obtain the content, then it's worth suing.
  • It's not that hard (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rakeswell (538134) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:53PM (#4399782) Homepage

    A couple of years ago, when I was in production support, I had to respond to our VP level concerning complaints from our clients who could not use our site with the standard screen readers. This was a novel issue to me at the time and I quickly familiarized myself with screen reader technology and the W3C's accessibility quidelines [w3.org].

    I suggested that it would not be a terribly huge undertaking to bring our site into a minimum level of compliance. Nope, this was deemed too costly relative to the small segment of our clientele who were disabled. Failing that, I suggested that we could simply ensure that all new development going forward implemented the accessibiltiy guidelines.

    Well, two years and a new redesign later, and this still hasn't been implemented. I mean, how hard is it to include accessibility in the business requirements for the new development being farmed out?

    Here's a web app [watchfire.com] that validates a URL against the W3C's accessibiltiy guidelines.Most sites will generate a ton of errors, but you'll also notice that this accessibility boils down to simple things like using *correct* html, making sure you supply text in alt and title tags, etc.

    I'm not certain, but I think accessibility concerns was a reason that has caused the W3C to want to deprecate the use of framesets: screenreaders have a hell of a time trying to present essentially two different documents at the same time with any level of coherance.

  • by starseeker (141897) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @09:53PM (#4399783) Homepage
    I don't know how the law is written, but the technology problems to handle in such a case are highly nontrivial.

    Consider. We have plenty of trouble now with websites which can only be viewed in one browser. This is visual display, mind you, which the vast majority of browsers are built to do by default. We can't even follow the standards well enough to handle the default access method well.

    Now, we add a whole new method of content rendering. We can't even impliment the main standards properly. How do we plan to ensure that an audio interface can successfully read a website, as well? Keep in mind that this is not what the web was originally designed to handle.

    Then there is the problem of economnic considerations - without a simple standard in widespread use, implimenting an audio interface becomes costly. It is desirable for handicapped people to be able to participate, but statistically they represent a fraction of the viewership. There won't be money in it, so companies aren't going to be happy about it. This will inevitably show up in the final result.

    Finally, and this is perhaps the most difficult point - how do we update the truly staggering amount of content already out there, much if unskillfully written and poorly maintained in the first place?

    Total access is a good goal, but the technological tools just aren't robust enough yet to handle it. The law needs to take that into account - this isn't a matter of adding a ramp, lowering telephones, handicapped parking or other straightforward and easily solved problems. Audio internet is a HARD problem, converting content on the internet is even harder, and it's just not going to be happening in the short term.

    In the end I think it is a good one to solve, both for the sake of those who need it and the fact that a more robust audio structure on the internet is likely to have many other benefits, as well. But that kind of work takes years and years. I don't know if the legal system will be able to figure that out.
  • Re:Interesting (Score:5, Interesting)

    by stefanlasiewski (63134) <(slashdot) (at) (stefanco.com)> on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:08PM (#4399870) Homepage Journal
    Must be different where you live...

    San Francisco and Berkeley, I've seen dozens of ATM machines with audio jacks so that blind people can use them. If you have a cluster of 3 Wells Fargo ATMs for example, one of them will have an audio jack.

    Not sure about San Francisco, but I know that Berkeley has one of the highest percentage of blind people in the US.
  • Re:Interesting (Score:2, Interesting)

    by random_static (604731) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:12PM (#4399893) Journal
    But why did they have to be made in the first place?

    perhaps so blind people could use them?

    I don't know about you, I can't recall ever seeing a SINGLE blind person using an ATM machine.

    perhaps because they generally can't?

    i don't know about you, but i always thought that that sort of situation was exactly why the ADA was created - people getting excluded from mainstream society and everyday life just because us "normies" can't be bothered to give them a fair go. braille-enabled ATMs would in no way hurt me, and might make a bunch of blind people's lives a lot easier; why shouldn't we make sure technology gets to help them out just as it helps the rest of us?

    as for the southwest airlines web site - CSS, HTML 4.0 and forwards, XHTML 2.0, XSL; the standards have been all about enabling access by and for all kinds of non-graphical and non-visual equipment, and it's been going on down that road for years. it just isn't rocket science any longer, and the sooner this company realizes it, the sooner they can give their webmasters a new, sensible set of requirements, and settle the whole thing quietly out of court. you and me will likely not even notice the difference, one web design team that likely spends all day tweaking the corporate website anyway will just have to tweak it a bit differently for a little while, and a bunch of people like the plaintiff will have an easier time doing things there's really no reason to hinder them from doing anyway. everybody wins, the way i see it.

    second worst case scenario this case might result in: plaintiff wins, precedent is made, and a great many web design teams all over the country will all have to tweak the corporate web site in a different direction for the next several months. most of them would have spent the next several months tweaking those same websites anyway.
    absolutely worst case scenario: defendant wins, and before long, vision-impaired people nationwide find the World Wide Web is all but useless to them. that would be our loss, because fewer potentially really cool people would be coming online, for no really good reason.

  • by rshugart (48491) <rshugart@ m y r e albox.com> on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:15PM (#4399899)

    OK, let me throw in my two cents both from the perspective of a blind web surfer and a blind website designer. I actually am a user of the technology mentioned in the article, and yes, some web sites can be extreemly difficult to surf. /. itself isn't the easiest in its default state, although it is usable and making some customizations in user preferences does help a lot. From my experience on the whole, if a web site sticks rather strictly to HTML, CSS and the other standards, they're OK. Problem is, very few sites do. An even worse problem is many web designers design their sites using Dreamweaver or some other graphical tool. This seperates them from the HTML itself, and many times they don't know what's going on under the hood. The common mantra among web designers I've noticed is "if it looks right, its right." It is very frustrating running into one of these sites, and the unfortunate thing is, there are many of them.

    Now that I've addressed the technical issues, let's move on to some of the other things that I've been reading about in this thread. I tend to aggree with the common conseption around here that lawsuites are way over used, and many people tend to be way too sue happy, thinking that will solve their problems. But let me ask, in a situation like this, what would you have done? I'm sure this blind person did try to contact the web designer. In fact, as blind people we are instructed to do just that right away when we encounter an inaccessible site. Problem is, very few web designers listen to us. I'm not sure if its intentional, but many of them just do not understand how we surf the web, and are probably under the impression that they have to go way out of their way to modify their pages for a screen reader. Refer to what I said above, that if a page is designed properly, nine times out of ten it will work just fine. OK, so contacting the web designer yeilds no response, so what next? Sometimes there is no other way to get a business to listen other than through its wallet. Very sad, dispicable, but true.

    So, again what is he to do? Assuming this person had contacted Southwest's webmasters (which as I said they should have,) what would you do next? And don't say just not use there services. There aren't enough blind people who have access to the internet in the first place to make it make a difference, and that's just like saying that blacks should just not frequent the businesses that discriminate against them. We all have a right to make use of public services, be them brick and morder or online. And considering how relatively little modification it takes to make a web site accessible (following standards is not hard,) I think that this person may very well have a case against Southwest.

  • by NZheretic (23872) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:29PM (#4399981) Homepage Journal
    It's envitable that the same laws requiring accessibility will eventually be applied to software as well.
    From Bill Haneman: I am delighted to relay the news that the
    "GNOME Accessibility Architecture" [sun.com] has been singled out in this year's "Helen Keller Achievement Award in Technology" [afb.org], one of the annual "Helen Keller Awards" presented by the American Foundation for the Blind.
    Although the award is officially being awarded to Sun Microsystems [sun.com] for its "leadership in universal design", it is the work of GNOME Accessibility [gnome.org] that is specifically called out by the award presenters."
  • Southwest.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by maxume (22995) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:34PM (#4400005)
    ...is an airline. They are not a website. The primary business activity of Southwest Airlines is moving people around. They run thier website to make things more convenient for their users, but it is not the only way that they sell tickets. The fact that this fella is blind does not in any way hinder him from flying on southwest airlines, he can probably use the phone.

    It would be great if Southwest was compliant, but as far as I am concerned, they could be compliant by adding the following to thier front page: Users unable to navigate this site please call XXX-XXXX-XXXX. And it wouldn't even have to be toll free.
  • Re:All Sites (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Golias (176380) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @10:51PM (#4400126)
    Does this mean all sites have to comply?

    That's a very good question. IANAL, but IIRC the ADA applies to any public accomodation, which some would say includes nearly all websites. (Damn, I've been reading /. way too much. Two common slash acronyms in one sentence!)

    On the other hand, if you are handing out pamphlets on a street corner, there's no law that says they need to be available in braile.

    Bottom line is that if you are going to enforce the ADA for any businesses at all, it should also be enforeced for e-commerce businesses. Private sites, existing for the sake of blogging or whatever, perhaps should be exempt. It will probably take a few of these sorts of lawsuits to hammer it out, because the ADA was, alas, a pathetically vague law.

    However, whether or not the law says your site must be blind-accessible, in most cases it ought to be, because if you are simply following standards (which includes proper use of "alt" tags), then most of what you put on the web already is.

    If your site can't be read by these text-to-voice tools the blind use, it should be pointed out that you are a shitty webmaster.

  • by ink (4325) on Sunday October 06, 2002 @11:41PM (#4400386) Homepage
    Mozilla's Composer forces some good practices for webpage authors. If you attempt to insert an image into a document, for example, it will inist that you fill in the 'ALT' tag before it allows the image to become part of the page. HTML generators should try to do similar things, it's just laziness that needs to be conquored. I'm not familiar enough with Flash/Shockwave authoring tools, but I do know that quite a few sites simply send out a flash program and provide no other means of entering the website -- which is just wrong.
  • by letxa2000 (215841) on Monday October 07, 2002 @12:30AM (#4400680)
    Does it matter? Last I checked most of the U.S. population (i.e. more than 50%) still doesn't have Internet acccess. If it's no longer 50%, big deal--there is still a large portion of the population that can't access the net.

    Here you have a blind person that's taking legal action to obtain something that not everyone has anyway--blind or not.

    As soon as 100% of the population has access to the web AND a significant percentage of commerce is conducted via the web this might make sense. But while tens of millions of U.S. citizens don't have access to this medium and only a few percent (?) of the economy is based on the medium, this lawsuit is absurd.

  • by lemkebeth (568887) on Monday October 07, 2002 @12:56AM (#4400800)
    ...because companies don't give a rats ass about accessibility. Now the ADA DOES apply to web sites.

    If you provide a service in the States, then you are liable.

    Besides, the sort of thing that you are asking for is a very simple thing to implement. For instance Alt tags for images.

    I've seen a lot of commercial sites that don't have the alt text.

    Talk to a lawyer, I know one who could tell you that this is an open and shut case and Southwest won't win.

    On an unrelated note, a lot of theaters STILL don't carry open captioned films even though they are required to by law. I'm getting sick of it enough that I MIGHT sue a theater.
  • Let's sum it all up (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jfmiller (119037) on Monday October 07, 2002 @01:25AM (#4400923) Homepage Journal
    Ok folks here's what all the descussion boils down to:
    • Does the ADA apply to the web?

    • We can all agree that when the ADA was passed it didn't have the internet in mind. The defense will agrue that it therefore doesn't apply to the web. The procicution will argue that the internet has become a normal part of life for most people and that it should therefore be covered under the ADA. Would you be able to function "normally" if you couldn't use the net?

    • Is the service provided by SW's website [southwest.com] available to the ADA protected groups?

    • I don't think the facts of the case are in dispute. the plantif clearly can't use the sight and sence you've been there you know why. (You have been there right [southwest.com]) The question then becomes could the plaintif have recieved the same service by some other means. (The telephone seems to be mentioned alot) the answer is here clearly no. [southwest.com] In order to get the discounds for some of these programs you must use the web interface. To give and analogy in the brick and morter world, what would happen if you got %50 off movie tickets provided you only used the stairs?

    • Assuming the two questions above are 'yes', must SouthWest change it's sight?

    • Here things get a bit trickier. SW must provide the same services offered on the web to ADA protected people. This could simple mean a note at the bottom of some pages stating that people with visual impairment may receive web only offers by phone. If on the other hand it is ruled that there is something intrinsically serviceable about SW's web page then they very well may have to change there sight.

    • How would a guilt verdict effect the rest of the web?

    • First off this part will depend a lot on how the previous questions were answered. Second it will depend on what gets ruled as a service. To give an example, I'm fairly sure Hotmail doesn't work with the web reader. There is also the issue of what standards will have to be met. Wheel chair ramps must be wide enough to accommodate a standard wheelchair, and everyone knows how big that is because it's in the code. On the other hand there is no standard for web readers. Establishing one (if necessary) will be a long and painful processes with lots of lawyers involved.

    In the end, I (and IANAL) believe that the ADA will apply in a very limited fashion to the web, simply requiring that ADA protected groups be able to access services availably on the web either directly or through alternate means (telephone). Ialso think it will apply only to those buisnesses that offer non-web based services through web interfaces. It will take another case to clarify what happens to sights sell goods, and sights that offer only web based services (like slashdot).

    In a closing note I want to remind readers that the ADA protects people from unequal treatment which they could not otherwise aviod. If every blind person in the US were to boycott SW it would not make a dent in SW's revinew. The ADA is the governments way of providing a leagle insentave to accomadate dissabled people for whom a finiantial incentive is not availible. This is not to say it isn't used like a club by scum sucking lawyers, nor is it to say that it couldn't use some fixing and clarifaction, but it is an important piece of law with it's place in our society.

    JFMILLER

  • Re:Poetic Justice? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 07, 2002 @01:56AM (#4401034)
    When you buy a seat on a plane, you aren't buying "a seat in which you can sit comfortably", you're buying a 2 foot by 3 foot chunk of space on an airplane. If you need twice that amount, you should pay twice the price.

    If you're so overweight that you can't fit into a regular seat, either lose weight or fly a different airline that offers more diverse accomodations. When you take up two seats but only pay for one, the company loses the money they could've got for that extra seat.

    "But I'm sure they could absorb the cost of one extra seat!". Yes, I'm sure they could too. But the point is that their business is to SELL SEATS. They're not in the business of making people feel good about themselves. If you pay for one seat, you should get one seat. If you need two, pay for two.

    It's like at a McDonald's - if you pay for one happy meal, you get one happy meal. What's that, one happy meal isn't enough for you? Buy two. The fact that one isn't enough for you based on your body type is irrelevant.
  • I'd think an easier solution would be to call 1 800 555-1212, get Southwest's toll-free number from them, and then call that number. I'd think the same information is available that way as is available through their website

    Nope, Southwest always has plenty of incentive deals for those using the website, apparently because using the phone costs customer rep time while the website is much lower overhead.

    This would seem to be a necessary condition for the suit. IANAL, but it would be if I were on the jury!

  • Re:Wheelchair Nazi's (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Reziac (43301) on Monday October 07, 2002 @02:36AM (#4401128) Homepage Journal
    That is real similar to this real-life case: one city (IIRC it was New York) installed port-a-potty units on every street corner in the primary "homeless district", so the homeless wouldn't have to shit in the alleys and pee in doorways anymore. And to accomodate the homeless who use wheelchairs, they made one unit in every 5 a wheelchair-accessable unit. Everybody happy -- streets cleaner, homeless have a chance to use toilet paper.

    Well, ALMOST everybody happy -- along came some disabled guy with a chip on his shoulder, who got some disabilities advocacy group to sue the city to force ALL the units to be wheelchair accessable. And sure enough, the court ruled that IF port-a-potties were provided for ANYONE, they must ALL have handicapped accessability.

    Well, there were several problems with that: 1) Standard units take up 4 square feet of sidewalk space. Handicapped units take up some 100 square feet of sidewalk space (ie. pretty much the whole corner). 2) Standard units cost $500 dollars apiece. Handicapped units cost $25,000 apiece. Making ALL the units handicapped-accessable was WAY over the city's budget for the project. 3) No one can sleep in a standard unit. The existing handicapped units were already being abused as bum hotels and crack houses.

    The city examined the verdict in light of the drawbacks enumerated above, and said to hell with it. ALL of the units were removed, and now ALL the homeless, disabled or otherwise, are back to shitting in alleys and peeing in doorways. All because one guy didn't want to wheel himself 5 extra blocks to use a handicapped unit.

  • Bull! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by gandalf23atwork (604291) on Monday October 07, 2002 @12:01PM (#4403284) Journal
    Get the shit done and don't put it off as something to do later, and you won't get sued. If you do and you are sued later, you've made a good faith effort to try to be accomodating. You can't please everyone and you can't expect every situation to be convered but you can try your best.

    Bullshit.

    Several years ago, waaaaaay back in the 90s, we decided to install a ramp at our church. My dad, myself, and a few men from the church spent a weekend and built a ramp that sloped from the street to the sidewalk, about 4 feet away, and it was about 3 feet wide, wider than the wheelchair we had available to us to use as a guide. None of us had any problems getting up the ramp, and none of the congregation had any complaints either.

    However, a few weeks after it was built we had a very irrate woman stop by and bitch about the ramp. I happened to be there at the time, and as I had helped build it I was asked to talk to her. She informed me that the ramp did not meet ADA specs and she was going to sue. I asked what the specs were, she said the main thing was that it was not painted red, and there where no grooves cut into the ramp to aid in traction. I didn't see the big deal was with the color, wheelchair people aren't sight impaired, the grooves sounded like a good idea, so I told her we'd make the chages. She got even more upset and said she'd sue anyway.

    The next weekend went went back out and cut grooves into the ramp about an inch and a half apart and about an eigth of an inch wide. Afterwards we painted the whole thing red.

    Sure enough the next week we were sued.

    Both our attorney and the opposing one said that the fact that we made changes indicated that we were aware that we were at fault, and indicated that we'd loose the trial because of that. So we settled out of court. The opposing attorney wanted a outrageous amount for his time and wanted us to tear down the ramp and build it again, this time correctly from the start. They gave us the specs to use, don't remember them off the top of my head, but I do remember we couldn't have a vertical wall on the ramp, it had to blend in smoothly with the grass. Why, I don't know, who wants to roll their wheelchair into the grass?

    So we tore the ramp down and rebuilt it. But, since we rebuilt it before the agreement was signed, it didn't matter. We had to tear it down and rebuild it again after we signed the settlement agreement. It was, to me, utter bullshit, but the lawyers on both sides agreed that we had to do it, so what could we do?

    All in all we spent around $100,000, between our lawyers and theirs, the cost of the materials was basically nothing, and labour was free, although jackhammer rental was kinda expensive, but compared to lawyer's fees was nothing. And all this because we were trying to be nice and build a ramp in front of the entrance, so that those in wheelchairs didn't have to use the service entrance in the back (nice wide ramp, sturdy handrail, been there for ages)

    So don't tell me that "Get the shit done and don't put it off as something to do later, and you won't get sued. "

    Now, as to the article in question: "We are quite tired of being shut out of some areas of life,"

    Are the blind people unable to use the telephone to make reservations? Are they forced, somehow, to use the internet? I looked in the phone book (I assume that braile version are avialble) and found this number for Southwest Airlines: 1-800-IFLYSWA (1-800-435-9792)

    I called the number and they said they could answer any flight information questions I had and you could make a reservation there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (I did not think to ask if they were open on holidays)

    -gandalf23@work

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -- Albert Einstein

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