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Main article: Policy

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The White House hopes tech employees will drive government innovation

18:25 | 22 October

The Trump administration has a major ask to make of big tech companies. In a meeting at the White House today, officials will ask Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM, among others, to make it easier for employees to do stints in the government.

It’s a heavy lift, of course, asking well-compensated workers to take time out from demanding gigs for the betterment of federal and state governments. A number of companies, including Facebook and Google, already allow employees to take time off for this exact reason. However, the particularly polarizing nature of politics in 2018 and all of the ill-will surrounding the current administration, have further complicated the ask.

The Washington Post quotes an anonymous official, who stressed the importance of “put[ting] politics aside” for the greater good. “This event on Monday is not just about our efforts, it’s about our successor, and their successor after that,” the person told the paper. “It’s good for the country in the long term for technology professionals to have civil service in their career at some point.”

The notoriously slow pace of government innovation was something the Obama administration looked to address during its eight years in power, and Trump’s White House appears to be interested in continuing that trend. Ahead of his inauguration, Trump met with tech leaders, including Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella, though the administration’s policies have been an on-going source of friction with Silicon Valley

 


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Egypt and Thailand: When the military turns against free speech

00:06 | 22 October

Wael Abbas, a human rights activist focused on police brutality in Egypt has been under arrest since May on charges of spreading fake news and “misusing social media.” Andy Hall, a labor rights researcher, has been fighting charges under Thailand’s computer crime laws because of a report published online that identified abuses of migrant workers.

You wouldn’t normally mention Egypt and Thailand in the same breath. But both countries underwent military coups within the last five years, and even among the many oppressive regimes in the world, they are going to extra lengths today to prosecute free speech. 

Abbas and Hall are just two examples of hundreds of recent prosecutions. In 2017 alone, Egyptian security forces arrested at least 240 people based on online posts. Three years after the coup, Thai authorities had charged more than 105 people just for posting comments deemed offensive to the monarchy. 

To be clear, neither country has ever been a bastion of free speech. With one exception, Thailand has been ranked “not free” every year that political-rights nonprofit Freedom House has published its Freedom on the Net Report. Egypt’s score has steadily declined since the height of the Arab Spring, going from “partly free” to “not free” in the last three years.      

Sanja Kelly has been with Freedom House for 14 years and has headed its Internet Freedom division since 2010. She tells me that what’s especially alarming is the extent to which authorities in both Egypt and Thailand have gone to silence online dissent. Activists and dissidents may well anticipate persecution around the world, but today housewives, students and even tourists in Egypt and Thailand have become the target of prosecutions for as little as posting a video or responding to a private message on social media.

Over the last five years both Egypt and Thailand have experienced an unprecedented crackdown on internet freedom. “In 2015, the Egyptian government blocked only two websites. Today, they are blocking over 500,” Kelly explained. “The situation in Egypt and Thailand is now among the most repressive in the world.” 

Egypt

Since El-Sisi seized power in 2013 in a coup, the Egyptian government has taken drastic steps to clamp down online. In its latest move, the government passed a law in September that makes any social media user with more than 5,000 followers subject to regulation as a publisher. So now in Egypt, if you have more than 5,000 Twitter followers, for example, you’re subject to the same regulations that the New York Times has on what it publishes.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2011, Facebook and Twitter were hailed as drivers behind the Arab Spring. The protests that resulted led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the country for nearly 30 years. At their height, many journalists even started calling the protests the “Twitter uprising” and the “Facebook revolution.”

Last year, we raised rainbow flags in Mashrou’ Leila concert & posted this picture on our Facebook page. Just saying ⁦

⁩ led to a massive crackdown on the ⁦
⁩ community in ⁦
⁩. ⁦
⁩ ⁦
⁩ ⁧
⁩ ⁧
pic.twitter.com/eLQicniBYL

— Rainbow Egypt (@rainbowegyptorg)

Kelly tells me that freedom on the internet in Egypt has been getting progressively worse since Sisi seized power. Even under Mubarak, the authorities were not as concerned with policing speech on the internet. But that has completely changed since 2013.    

Kelly adds that the measures Egyptian authorities passed this year were intended to tighten their grip on social media and internet use even further. The result has been more and more Egyptians being arrested, with the authorities using a combination of laws to bring charges. 

Thailand

Thailand has long been known for its strict application of its lèse majesté laws under which any criticism of the Thai king or his family can lead to years in jail. But since the 2014 military coup, the enforcement of these laws has gone into overdrive. The ruling military junta in Thailand has also beefed up computer crimes and defamation laws to make it all but impossible to express dissent online.     

According to Human Rights Watch, since the coup in 2014, the junta has ramped up arrests under the 2007 Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA). Last year, the military amplified the 2007 law by providing grounds for the government to prosecute anything they designate as “false,” “partially false,” or “distorted” information, a determination that the government itself gets to make.

Even criticism of the changes to the law itself were outlawed, with the Thai Army Cyber Center warning that posting or sharing online commentary that criticizes the law could be considered false information and result in prosecution.

Kelly tells me that, while the CCA and lèse majesté laws have long been used to stifle online dissent, the amendments last year granted Thai authorities even broader powers. They closed down loopholes in earlier versions of the law, including allowing authorities to jail people for critical messages they receive on their phone even if they don’t share them. This means that if you get a Facebook message in Thailand today criticizing the royal family, then you are under an obligation to delete the message or face prosecution.

Andy Hall found himself in the middle of this progression towards heavier handed enforcement. A labor rights activist, Hall conducted research for a report for the group Finnwatch that found that the Natural Fruit Company, Thailand’s largest producer of pineapples, mistreated its workers. Hall then faced criminal prosecution under the CCA and cyber defamation laws for the report’s publication online and for an interview he later gave to Al-Jazeera about the report. 

Speaking to me from an undisclosed location, Hall tells me he has spent more than $100,000 defending the criminal charges against him — mainly fundraised from supporters — and the better part of the last five years dealing with the charges and his appeals. He admits things could have been much worse: “If I weren’t a British citizen and my case hadn’t gotten as much attention as it has, then I’m not sure I’d be around today to tell my story. Many Thai citizens have lost their lives doing similar work.”

Hall didn’t set out to be a freedom of speech crusader, he had dropped out of his PhD program in 2005 to move to Southeast Asia to become a labor rights investigator, only to find himself in the crosshairs of the country’s defamation laws in 2013. When he was first charged, the government asked him to make a public apology denouncing his research. When he refused, the prosecution continued with his passport being confiscated at one point to prevent him from leaving the country.

Now having taken refuge in a third country, Hall tells me that the actions of the government — especially its increased enforcement of cyber defamation laws over the last year — has bred fear among activists and has had a chilling effect on the work of human rights advocates in Thailand.  

It’s Not Just Activists

According to Kelly, one especially worrying trend about Thailand and Egypt’s increased prosecutions is that authorities have been increasingly willing to go after anyone they deem critical online, not just seasoned activists. Housewives, students and even tourists.

Just in September, a Lebanese tourist was arrested on her way out of Egypt for posting a ten-minute video on Facebook that had gone viral. In the video, she’d complained of sexual harassment she’d experienced while in the country. She was found guilty of deliberately spreading fake news and public indecency for just speaking out about what had been done to her. She now faces an eight year-sentence.

Over in Thailand, a housewife faced up to 15 years in prison for violating lèse-majesté laws because she had responded to a Facebook message critical of the government with one word, “ja” (roughly “yeah” in Thai). While a law student was sentenced to 2.5 years last year under the same laws for sharing a BBC article profiling the new Thai king.

Role of Facebook and Twitter

What role have social media platforms played in all of this? To their credit, companies like Facebook and Twitter have not been silent bystanders who’ve simply applied these draconian laws blindly. To begin with, they enforce global standards for what can and can’t be posted on their platforms, and they don’t modify these standards based on any one country’s repressive defamation laws.

Both Facebook and Twitter also publish periodic transparency reports that aggregate the number of requests they get from governments to take down posts or obtain information on users. This week, Twitter announced that it would let users know when a tweet has been deleted on the basis of a government request.    

A review of the transparency reports for each of Egypt and Thailand though shows that the number of requests are remarkably low given their respective populations and the wide use of Facebook in each of these countries. Facebook says that in 2017 it only received seven requests from Thai authorities and just one from the Egyptians. In response, Facebook provided 17% of data requested by Thais and did not provide any data to the Egyptian government (compared to 32,000 requests by the US government with an 85% production rate by Facebook over the same period).

So how can the number of prosecutions based on social media posts be reconciled with the low number of requests? Kelly tells me it’s likely because Thai and Egyptian authorities have found ways to circumvent platforms altogether knowing that their requests will not be complied with.

What Freedom House has documented instead is arms of the government dedicated to monitoring what’s posted on social media. In the case of Twitter, Thai and Egyptian governments filter for certain words and then use the publicly available tweets as a basis for prosecution. With private Facebook posts, governments go one step further. They create fake profiles with pictures of attractive men and women, send a friend request to their target and get access to a profile when their friend request is accepted. They then use whatever private posts they find to prosecute.   

In one case in Egypt, Kelly tells me the government scanned pictures on Facebook from a concert at which the rainbow flag was displayed. Egyptian authorities then went after the people it could identify from these pictures on the basis of violating morality laws. Using online platforms to entrap members of the LGBTQ community has become a favorite tool of repression by Egyptian authorities. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, at least 77 members of the LGBTQ community have been arrested since the coup for their online expression.

Are Egypt and Thailand the Worst Offenders?

Even though Egypt and Thailand have rung alarm bells this year with the sheer number of prosecutions of online speech, they are still not the worst offenders against speech online. Kelly names Saudi Arabia, China, the UAE, North Korea, and Iran as just some examples of worse offenders. The difference, Kelly explains, is that the regimes in those countries have become extremely adept at fighting online dissent.

The fact that there may have been more prosecutions in Egypt and Thailand this year doesn’t tell the whole story. People in the other countries that Kelly names have just given up on the ability to express dissent online. China’s clampdown doesn’t even need to get to the user level – instead they have companies like Baidu and WeChat control and filter messages at the provider level before they’re even published. Egypt and Thailand are operating at a lower level of sophistication and have a strong and active civil society – which means people there still see a bigger opening and haven’t become completely self-censoring.

The question then becomes, how long will it be before Thailand and Egypt turn into the next China or Saudi Arabia? Will dictatorships be converging in their practices to stifle online speech? Social media may have turned the world into a global village, but it seems that village is also enabling dictators on opposite ends of the globe to better learn from each other’s repressive measures.

 


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China is funding the future of American biotech

20:15 | 20 October

Silicon Valley is in the midst of a health craze, and it is being driven by “Eastern” medicine.

It’s been a record year for US medical investing, but investors in Beijing and Shanghai are now increasingly leading the largest deals for US life science and biotech companies. In fact, Chinese venture firms have invested more this year into life science and biotech in the US than they have back home, providing financing for over 300 US-based companies, per Pitchbook. That’s the story at Viela Bio, a Maryland-based company exploring treatments for inflammation and autoimmune diseases, which raised a $250 million Series A led by three Chinese firms.

Chinese capital’s newfound appetite also flows into the mainland. Business is booming for Chinese medical startups, who are also seeing the strongest year of venture investment ever, with over one hundred companies receiving $4 billion in investment.

As Chinese investors continue to shift their strategies towards life science and biotech, China is emphatically positioning itself to be a leader in medical investing with a growing influence on the world’s future major health institutions.

Chinese VCs seek healthy returns

We like to talk about things we can interact with or be entertained by. And so as nine-figure checks flow in and out of China with stunning regularity, we fixate on the internet giants, the gaming leaders or the latest media platform backed by Tencent or Alibaba.

However, if we follow the money, it’s clear that the top venture firms in China have actually been turning their focus towards the country’s deficient health system.

A clear leader in China’s strategy shift has been Sequoia Capital China, one of the country’s most heralded venture firms tied to multiple billion-dollar IPOs just this year.

Historically, Sequoia didn’t have much interest in the medical sector.  Health was one of the firm’s smallest investment categories, and it participated in only three health-related deals from 2015-16, making up just 4% of its total investing activity. 

Recently, however, life sciences have piqued Sequoia’s fascination, confirms a spokesperson with the firm.  Sequoia dove into six health-related deals in 2017 and has already participated in 14 in 2018 so far.  The firm now sits among the most active health investors in China and the medical sector has become its second biggest investment area, with life science and biotech companies accounting for nearly 30% of its investing activity in recent years.

Health-related investment data for 2015-18 compiled from Pitchbook, Crunchbase, and SEC Edgar

There’s no shortage of areas in need of transformation within Chinese medical care, and a wide range of strategies are being employed by China’s VCs. While some investors hope to address influenza, others are focused on innovative treatments for hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

For instance, according to the Chinese Journal of Cancer, in 2015, 36% of world’s lung cancer diagnoses came from China, yet the country’s cancer survival rate was 17% below the global average. Sequoia has set its sights on tackling China’s high rate of cancer and its low survival rate, with roughly 70% of its deals in the past two years focusing on cancer detection and treatment.

That is driven in part by investments like the firm’s $90 million Series A investment into Shanghai-based JW Therapeutics, a company developing innovative immunotherapy cancer treatments. The company is a quintessential example of how Chinese VCs are building the country’s next set of health startups using their international footprints and learnings from across the globe.

Founded as a joint-venture offshoot between US-based Juno Therapeutics and China’s WuXi AppTec, JW benefits from Juno’s experience as a top developer of cancer immunotherapy drugs, as well as WuXi’s expertise as one of the world’s leading contract research organizations, focusing on all aspects of the drug R&D and development cycle.

Specifically, JW is focused on the next-generation of cell-based immunotherapy cancer treatments using chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) technologies. (Yeah…I know…) For the WebMD warriors and the rest of us with a medical background that stopped at tenth-grade chemistry, CAR-T essentially looks to attack cancer cells by utilizing the body’s own immune system.

Past waves of biotech startups often focused on other immunologic treatments that used genetically-modified antibodies created in animals.  The antibodies would effectively act as “police,” identifying and attaching to “bad guy” targets in order to turn off or quiet down malignant cells.  CAR-T looks instead to modify the body’s native immune cells to attack and kill the bad guys directly.

Chinese VCs are investing in a wide range of innovative life science and biotech startups. (Photo by Eugeneonline via Getty Images)

The international and interdisciplinary pedigree of China’s new medical leaders not only applies to the organizations themselves but also to those running the show.

At the helm of JW sits James Li.  In a past life, the co-founder and CEO held stints as an executive heading up operations in China for the world’s biggest biopharmaceutical companies including Amgen and Merck.  Li was also once a partner at the Silicon Valley brand-name investor, Kleiner Perkins.

JW embodies the benefits that can come from importing insights and expertise, a practice that will come to define the companies leading the medical future as the country’s smartest capital increasingly finds its way overseas.

GV and Founders Fund look to keep the Valley competitive

Despite heavy investment by China’s leading VCs, Silicon Valley is doubling down in the US health sector.  (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JASON LEE)

Innovation in medicine transcends borders. Sickness and death are unfortunately universal, and groundbreaking discoveries in one country can save lives in the rest.

The boom in China’s life science industry has left valuations lofty and cross-border investment and import regulations in China have improved.

As such, Chinese venture firms are now increasingly searching for innovation abroad, looking to capitalize on expanding opportunities in the more mature US medical industry that can offer innovative technologies and advanced processes that can be brought back to the East.

In April, Qiming Venture Partners, another Chinese venture titan, closed a $120 million fund focused on early-stage US healthcare. Qiming has been ramping up its participation in the medical space, investing in 24 companies over the 2017-18 period.

New firms diving into the space hasn’t frightened the Bay Area’s notable investors, who have doubled down in the US medical space alongside their Chinese counterparts.

Partner directories for America’s most influential firms are increasingly populated with former doctors and medically-versed VCs who can find the best medical startups and have a growing influence on the flow of venture dollars in the US.

At the top of the list is Krishna Yeshwant, the GV (formerly Google Ventures) general partner leading the firm’s aggressive push into the medical industry.

Krishna Yeshwant (GV) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

A doctor by trade, Yeshwant’s interest runs the gamut of the medical spectrum, leading investments focusing on anything from real-time patient care insights to antibody and therapeutic technologies for cancer and neurodegenerative disorders.

Per data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, Krishna has been GV’s most active partner over the past two years, participating in deals that total over a billion dollars in aggregate funding.

Backed by the efforts of Yeshwant and select others, the medical industry has become one of the most prominent investment areas for Google’s venture capital arm, driving roughly 30% of its investments in 2017 compared to just under 15% in 2015.

GV’s affinity for medical-investing has found renewed life, but life science is also part of the firm’s DNA.  Like many brand-name Valley investors, GV founder Bill Maris has long held a passion for the health startups.  After leaving GV in 2016, Maris launched his own fund, Section 32, focused specifically on biotech, healthcare and life sciences. 

In the same vein, life science and health investing has been part of the lifeblood for some major US funds including Founders Fund, which has consistently dedicated over 25% of its deployed capital to the space since at least 2015.

The tides may be changing, however, as the recent expansion of oversight for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) may severely impact the flow of Chinese capital into areas of the US health sector. 

Under its extended purview, CFIUS will review – and possibly block – any investment or transaction involving a foreign entity related to the production, design or testing of technology that falls under a list of 27 critical industries, including biotech research and development.

The true implications of the expanded rules will depend on how aggressively and how often CFIUS exercises its power.  But a lengthy review process and the threat of regulatory blocks may significantly increase the burden on Chinese investors, effectively shutting off the Chinese money spigot.

Regardless of CFIUS, while China’s active presence in the US health markets hasn’t deterred Valley mainstays, with a severely broken health system and an improved investment environment backed by government support, China’s commitment to medical innovation is only getting stronger.

VCs target a disastrous health system

Deficiencies in China’s health sector has historically led to troublesome outcomes.  Now the government is jump-starting investment through supportive policy. (Photo by Alexander Tessmer / EyeEm via Getty Images)

They say successful startups identify real problems that need solving. Marred with inefficiencies, poor results, and compounding consumer frustration, China’s health industry has many

Outside of a wealthy few, citizens are forced to make often lengthy treks to overcrowded and understaffed hospitals in urban centers.  Reception areas exist only in concept, as any open space is quickly filled by hordes of the concerned, sick, and fearful settling in for wait times that can last multiple days. 

If and when patients are finally seen, they are frequently met by overworked or inexperienced medical staff, rushing to get people in and out in hopes of servicing the endless line behind them. 

Historically, when patients were diagnosed, treatment options were limited and ineffective, as import laws and affordability issues made many globally approved drugs unavailable.

As one would assume, poor detection and treatment have led to problematic outcomes. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes and chronic lung disease accounts for 80% of deaths in China, according to a recent report from the World Bank

Recurring issues of misconduct, deception and dishonesty have amplified the population’s mounting frustration.

After past cases of widespread sickness caused by improperly handled vaccinations, China’s vaccine crisis reached a breaking point earlier this year.  It was revealed that 250,000 children had been given defective and fallacious rabies vaccinations, a fact that inspectors had discovered months prior and swept under the rug.

Fracturing public trust around medical treatment has serious, potentially destabilizing effects. And with deficiencies permeating nearly all aspects of China’s health and medical infrastructure, there is a gaping set of opportunities for disruptive change.

In response to these issues, China’s government placed more emphasis on the search for medical innovation by rolling out policies that improve the chances of success for health startups, while reducing costs and risk for investors.

Billions of public investment flooded into the life science sector, and easier approval processes for patents, research grants, and generic drugs, suddenly made the prospect of building a life science or biotech company in China less daunting. 

For Chinese venture capitalists, on top of financial incentives and a higher-growth local medical sector, loosening of drug import laws opened up opportunities to improve China’s medical system through innovation abroad.

Liquidity has also improved due to swelling global interest in healthcare. Plus, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange recently announced changes to allow the listing of pre-revenue biotech companies.

The changes implemented across China’s major institutions have effectively provided Chinese health investors with a much broader opportunity set, faster growth companies, faster liquidity, and increased certainty, all at lower cost.

However, while the structural and regulatory changes in China’s healthcare system has led to more medical startups with more growth, it hasn’t necessarily driven quality.

US and Western investors haven’t taken the same cross-border approach as their peers in Beijing. From talking with those in the industry, the laxity of the Chinese system, and others, have made many US investors weary of investing in life science companies overseas.

And with the Valley similarly stepping up its focus on startups that sprout from the strong American university system, bubbling valuations have started to raise concern.

But with China dedicating more and more billions across the globe, the country is determined to patch the massive holes in its medical system and establish itself as the next leader in international health innovation.

 


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In State Tectonics, an explosive ending for the future of democracy

19:35 | 20 October

An omnipotent data infrastructure and knowledge-sharing tech organization has spread across the planet. Global conspiracies to disseminate propaganda and rig elections are ever present. Algorithms determine what people see as objective truth, and terrorist organizations gird to bring down the monopoly on information.

Malka Older faces a problem few speculative science fiction authors face in their lifetimes: having their work become a blueprint for reality. The author, who began formulating her Centenal Cycle series just a few years ago, now finds that her plots have leapt off the page and have become the daily fodder for cable news programs and Congressional investigations. Her universe is set decades into the future, but history is accelerating, and decades into the future can now mean 2019.

So we arrive at the third and final volume of a trilogy that began as a single work called Infomocracy and has proliferated into Null States and now State Tectonics. Ending a trilogy is rarely easy, but State Tectonics does what Older has always done best with her works, smashing together ideas about the future of politics with a medley of thriller styles to deliver an ample helping of thought-provoking nuance.

Older’s world is built on two simple premises. First, through a project called microdemocracy, the world has been subdivided into 100,000 person governing units known as centenals, and every citizen in the world has the right of migration to choose the government they want. This creates strange artifacts — for instance, in dense areas like New York City, citizens can change governments from a corporate-backed libertarian paradise to a leftist environmental oasis in as quick as a subway stop.

Second, to ensure that citizens can make the best choices for themselves, a global organization called Information (a hybrid Google, United Nations, and BBC) tirelessly works to provide objective information to citizens about politics and the world, verifying claims about everything from election promises to the taste of items on a restaurant menu.

Together, they allow Older to explore a world of information manipulation and electoral strategy while meditating on the meaning of objective truth. Across the trilogy, we follow a crew of Information staffers as they uncover political plots and intrigue around a series of global elections. This structure allows Older to create paced thrillers without losing the intellectual spirit of speculative fiction.

While in her last work Null States, the focus was on inequality and lack of access to information, in State Tectonics, Older interrogates the meaning of Information’s monopoly on … information itself. In this microdemocratic world, it is a crime to provide unverified information to people, and yet, Information hardly has infinite knowledge about the world. A shadowy group starts to purvey local information about cities and people outside the normal Information channels, and that raises profound questions — who ultimately “owns” reality? How do we decide what objective truth even is?

In the background of this central question is a trial for an Information staffer accused of the crime of algorithmic bias, of adjusting reality to suit her own ends. Sound familiar?

As a work of speculative fiction — particularly about a subject as complex as the future of democracy — State Tectonics is superlative. Older is striking in her frenetic ability to weave together idea after idea into vignettes that caused this reader to constantly stop and wander in thought. In just this book, we have discussions on the future of politics, mental health, infrastructure finance, transportation, food, nationalism, and identity politics. The dynamic range here is exhilarating.

Unfortunately, that enormous range forces Older to sacrifice depth, not only in the sophistication of some of these topics, which are often only conceived in slight brushstrokes, but also in the characters themselves. After three reasonably hefty books, I still don’t feel as if I truly know the characters I’ve spent so much time with. They are like friends in a transient city such as New York City, people to hang out with on weekends, but not worth a followup once they move on.

More pejoratively, the book feels constantly weighed down by extraneous details that at times can feel more like Wikipedia than assiduous worldbuilding. In this regard, Older has actually matured as a writer from her earlier works, as the detailed digressions are fewer and far between, but they remain as distracting from her core plot, and take time away from the needed work of fleshing out her characters further.

State Tectonics, like its earlier siblings, is the best and worst of fusion cuisine: the brilliant items on the menu can inspire us to think radically beyond our traditional categories and beliefs, but the vast majority of the dishes end up being mishmashes that are ultimately ephemeral and forgotten. The novel is brilliant in discoursing on the future of democracy, and if that is a topic of keen interest, few books will satisfy that urge like this one will.

 


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Take a video tour of Facebook’s election security war room

13:00 | 18 October

Beneath an American flag, 20 people packed tight into a beige conference room are Facebook’s, and so too the Internet’s, first line of defence for democracy. This is Facebook election security war room. Screens visualize influxes of foreign political content and voter suppression attempts as high-ranking team members from across divisions at Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp coordinate rapid responses. The hope is through face-to-face real-time collaboration in the war room, Facebook can speed up decision-making to minimize how misinformation influences how vote.

In this video, TechCrunch takes you inside the war room at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. Bustling with action beneath the glow of the threat dashboards, you see what should have existed two years ago. During the U.S. presidential election, Russian government trolls and profit-driven fake news outlets polluted the social network with polarizing propaganda. Now Facebook hopes to avoid a repeat in the upcoming US midterms as well as elections across the globe. And to win the hearts, minds, and trust of the public, it’s being more transparent about its strategy.

“It’s not something you can scale to solve with just human.s And it’s not something you can solve with just technology either” says Facebook’s head of cybersecurity Nathaniel Gleicher. “I think artificial intelligence is a critical component of a solution and humans are critical component of a solution.” The two approaches combine in the war room.

Who’s In The War Room And How They Fight Back

Engineers – Facebook’s coders develop the dashboards that monitor political content, hate speech, user reports of potential false news, voter suppression content, and more. They build in alarms that warn the team of anomalies and spikes in the data, triggering investigation by…

  • Data Scientists – Once a threat is detected and visualized on the threat boards, these team members dig into who’s behind an attack, and the web of accounts executing the misinformation campaign.
  • Operations Specialists – They determine if and how the attacks violate Facebook’s community standards. If a violation is confirmed, they take down the appropriate accounts and content wherever they appear on the network.
  • Threat Intelligence Researchers and Investigators – These professional cybersecurity professionals have tons of experience in deciphering the sophisticated tactics used by Facebook’s most powerful adversaries including state actors. They also help Facebook run war games and drills to practice defense against last-minute election day attacks.
  • Instagram and WhatsApp Leaders – Facebook’s acquisitions must also be protected, so representatives from those teams join the war room to coordinate monitoring and takedowns across the company’s family of apps. Together with Facebook’s high-ups, they dispense info about election protection to Facebook’s 20,000 security staffers.
  • Local Experts – Facebook now starts working to defend an election 1.5 to 2 years ahead of time. To provide maximum context for decisions, local experts from countries with the next elections join to bring knowledge of cultural norms and idiosyncracies.
  • Policy Makers – To keep Facebook’s rules about what’s allowed up to date to bar the latest election interference tactics, legal and policy team members join to turn responses into process.

Beyond fellow Facebook employees, the team works external government, security, and tech industry partners. Facebook routinely cooperates with other social networks to pass each other information and synchronize take-downs. Facebook has to get used to this. Following the mid-terms it will evaluate whether it needs to constantly operate a war room. But after it was caught be surprise in 2016, Facebook accepts that it can never turn a blind eye again.

Facebook’s director of our global politics and government outreach team Katie Harbath concludes. “This is our new normal.”

 


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N26 faces criticism regarding its identification processes

19:48 | 17 October

Fintech startup N26 is growing quite rapidly. Building a startup is hard, but building a startup that manages your bank account is even harder given the increased scrutiny. German weekly magazine Wirtschaftswoche published an article that questioned N26’s identification processes. According to Wirtschaftswoche, it’s quite easy to create an account with a fake ID document.

“One or two people got through with a fake ID document. And we detected that afterward. Unfortunately, we didn't detect it in real time,” co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf told me. “Unfortunately, it can happen.”

But Stalf also insisted that it’s not a widespread problem and that all banks face the same issue. According to him, N26 complies with all regulations when it comes to onboarding.

Currently, N26 has three different procedures depending on the country and works with a third-party company called SafeNed for some of the verification procedures.

In many countries, you can initiate a video call with someone so that they can check your ID and compare it with your face. In Germany, you can also print a document, go to the post office with an ID document and make a post employee check that you are actually you.

In some countries, you can open an N26 account by uploading a photo of your ID document and a selfie. Other banks also take advantage of this procedure. For instance, it’s a common process in the U.K.

More generally, other banks also have to deal with fake ID documents. But security is never perfect. That’s why you can’t simply eradicate the issue. You can try to keep the fake ID rate as low as possible.

“Security is our top priority at N26, which is why secure identification processes and constant review of our security and monitoring mechanisms to prevent identity theft are of great importance to the company,” the company told me in a statement.

In other words, N26 monitors this fake ID rate. And N26 also has ongoing transaction monitoring for those who have already opened a bank account. The company tries to detect fraudulent activity as quickly as possible.

You might think that uploading a photo of your ID document leads to more fraudulent activity. But N26 has noticed that there’s a higher fraud rate for customers who go to the post office to check their ID document.

So fraud is nothing new in the banking industry. Nobody has eradicated fraud, and nobody will. In fact, many startups (such as DreamQuark) are working on improving fraud detection using machine learning and more sophisticated processes. But even artificial intelligence won’t solve this problem altogether.

All eyes are on N26 because it’s the hot new thing. But if you look at what’s happening, it’s a pretty boring story. “In one of the articles they said we used weaker method to grow faster. This is complete bullshit,” Stalf told me.

This story is a great example that it can be tough to manage your startup’s reputation. Building trust takes a long time. But it can go away much more quickly. That might be why N26 debunked the issue so intensely.

Here’s N26’s full statement:

Security is our top priority at N26, which is why secure identification processes and constant review of our security and monitoring mechanisms to prevent identity theft are of great importance to the company.

After the customer’s identity is verified, we carry out ongoing transaction monitoring along with numerous other security measures, in a bid to prevent criminal activity such as money laundering and terrorist financing.

We therefore take the findings put forward by Wirtschaftswoche very seriously, will analyse the facts and take appropriate measures if necessary.

Contrary to the statement in Wirtschaftswoche, the use of photo verification by N26 is legally compliant. N26 works with a regulated payment service provider, SafeNed, in this regard. SafeNed is a UK business which is authorised and regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) with regards to the prevention of money laundering and terrorist financing. SafeNed verifies its customers using the Photo Ident process, which is compliant with UK law.

According to the German Money Laundering Act, N26 is allowed to use a third party regulated in the EU, in this case a payment service provider in the UK, for the verification of customers (Section 17 (1) GwG). The respective verification procedure is then determined by the law applicable to the third party (in the above example, therefore, by UK law). This understanding is also confirmed by BaFin in its interpretation and application notes on the German Money Laundering Act (p. 67 et seq.) for customers not resident in Germany.

 


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Facebook News Feed now downranks sites with stolen content

00:02 | 17 October

Facebook is demoting trashy news publishers and other websites that illicitly scrape and republish content from other sources with little or no modification. Today it exclusively told TechCrunch that it will show links less prominently in the News Feed if they have a combination of this new signal about content authenticity along with either clickbait headlines orlanding pages overflowing with low-quality ads. The move comes after Facebook’s surveys and in-person interviews with discovered that users hate scraped content.

If illgotten intellectual property gets less News Feed distribution, it will receive less referral traffic, earn less ad revenue, and the there’ll be less incentive for crooks to steal articles, photos, and videos in the first place. That could create an umbrella effect that improves content authenticity across the web.

And just in case the scraped profile data stolen from 29 million users in Facebook’s recent massive security breach ended up published online, Facebook would already have a policy in place to make links to it effectively disappear from the feed.

Here’s an example of the type of site that might be demoted by Facebook’s latest News Feed change. “Latet Nigerian News” scraped one of my recent TechCrunch articles, and surrounded it by tons of ads.

An ad-filled site that scraped my recent TechCrunch article. This site might be hit by a News Feed demotion

“Starting today, we’re rolling out an update so people see fewer posts that ink out to low quality sites that predominantly copy and republish content from other sites without providing unique value. We are adjusting our Publish Guidelines accordingly” Facebook wrote in an addendum to its May 2017 post about demoting sites stuffed with crappy ads. Facebook tells me the new publisher guidelines will warn news outlets to add original content or value to reposted content or invoke the social network’s wrath.

Personally, I think the importance of transparency around these topics warrants a new blog post from Facebook as well as an update to the original post linking forward to it.

So how does Facebook determine if content is stolen? It’s systems compare the main text content of a page with all other text content to find potential matches. The degree of matching is used to predict that a site stole its content. It then uses a combined classifier merging this prediction with how clickbaity a site’s headlines are plus the quality and quantity of ads on the site.

 


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Study says the US is quickly losing its entrepreneurial edge

20:06 | 5 October

Photographer: Daro Sulakauri/Bloomberg

According to a new study conducted by the Center for American Entrepreneurship and NYU’s Shack Institute of Real Estate, the US may be losing its competitive advantage as the dominant nucleus of the startup and venture capital universe. 

The analysis, led by senior Brookings Institution fellow Ian Hathaway and “Rise of the Creative Class” author Richard Florida, examines the flow of venture capital over 100,000 deals from 2005 to 2017 and details how the historically US-centric practice of venture capital has become a global phenomenon.

While the US still appears to produce the largest amount of venture activity in the world, America’s share of the global pie is falling dramatically and doing so quickly.

In the mid-90s, the US accounted for more than 95% of global venture capital investment.  By 2012, this number had fallen to 70%. At the end of 2017, the US share of total venture investment had fallen to just 50%.   

Over the last decade, non-US countries have propelled growth in the global startup and venture economy, which has swelled from $50 billion to over $170 billion in size.  In particular, China, India and the UK now account for a third of global venture deal count and dollars – 2-3x the share held ten years ago.  And with VC dollars increasingly circulating into modernizing Asia-Pac and European cities, the researchers found that the erosion in the US share of venture capital is trending in the wrong direction.

Growth of global startup cities and the myth of the American “rise of the rest”

We’ve spent the summer discussing the notion of Silicon Valley reaching its parabolic peak – Observing the “rise of the rest” across smaller American tech hubs.  In reality, the data reveals a “rise in the rest of the world”, with startup ecosystems outside the US growing at a faster pace than most US hubs.

The Bay Area remains the world’s preeminent beneficiary of VC investment, and New York, Los Angeles, and Boston all find themselves in the top ten cities contributing to global venture growth.  However, only six of the top 20 cities are located in the US, while 14 are in Asia or Europe.  At the individual level, only two American cities crack the top 20 fastest growing startup hubs.  

Still, the authors found the bulk of VC activity remains highly concentrated in a small number of incumbent startup cities. More than 50% of all global venture capital deployed can be attributed to only six cities and half of the growth in VC activity over the last five years can be attributed to just four cities.  Despite the growing number of ecosystems playing a role in venture decisions, the dominant incumbent startup hubs hold a firm grip on the majority of capital deployed.

China and the surge of mega deals

Unsurprisingly, the largest contributor to the globalization of venture capital and the slimming share of the US is the rapid escalation of China’s startup ecosystem.

In the last three years, China has captured nearly a fourth of total VC investment.  Since 2010, Beijing contributed more to VC deployment growth than any other city, while three other Chinese cities (Shanghai, Hangzhou, Shenzhen) fell in the top 15. 

A major part of China’s ascension can be tied to the idiosyncratic rise of late-stage “mega deals”, which the study defines as $500 million or more in size.  Once an extremely rare occurrence, mega deals now make up a significant portion of all venture dollars deployed.  From 2005-2007, only two mega deals took place.  From 2010-2012, eight of such deals took place.  From 2015-2017, there were 80 global mega deals, representing a fifth of the total venture capital activity.  Chinese cities accounted for half of all mega deal investment over the same period.

The good, the bad, and the uncertain

It’s not all bad for the US, with the study highlighting continued ecosystem growth in established US hubs and leading roles for non-valley markets in NY, LA, and Boston.

And the globalization of the startup and venture economy is by no means a “bad thing”.  In fact, access to capital, the spread of entrepreneurial spirit, and stronger global economic development and prosperity is almost unquestionably a “good thing.”

However, the US’ share of venture-backed startups is falling, and the US losing its competitive advantage in the startup and venture capital market could have major implications for its future as a global economic leader.  Five of the six largest US companies were previously venture-backed startups and now provide a combined value of around $4 trillion. 

The intense competition for talent marks another major challenge for the US who has historically been a huge beneficiary of foreign-born entrepreneurs.  With the rise of local ecosystems across the globe, entrepreneurs no longer have to flock to the US to build their companies or have access to venture capital.  The problem attracting entrepreneurs is compounded by notoriously unfriendly US visa policies – not to mention recent harsh rhetoric and tension over immigration that make the US a less attractive destination for skilled immigrants.  

At a recent speaking event, Florida stated he believed the US’ fading competitive advantage was a greater threat to American economic power than previous collapses seen in the steel and auto industries.  A sentiment echoed by Techstars co-founder Brad Feld, who in the report’s forward states, “government leaders should read this report with alarm.”

It remains to be seen whether the train has left the station or if the US can hold on to its position as the world’s venture leader.  What is clear is that Silicon Valley is no longer the center of the universe and the geography of the startup and venture capital world is changing.

The Rise of the Global Startup City: The New Map of Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital tries to illustrate these tectonic shifts and identifies tiers of global startup cities based on size, growth and balance of VC deals and investments.

 


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Uber will offer free rides to the polls on Election Day

20:33 | 4 October

Uber no longer wants the barrier to transportation to be a deciding factor between voting and not voting. On Election Day, Uber is going to make it easy for people to find their local polling places and then get them a ride there for free.

On Nov. 6, 2018, Uber will offer U.S. riders the ability to quickly find their polling place and then book a free ride. Lyft is similarly offering half-priced and free rides to polling places on Election Day.

“Decisions get made by those who show up,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a blog post. “This Election Day, Uber will be doing what we can to make it easier for people to do just that.”

In the 2016 election, 35 percent of youth surveyed cited a lack of transportation as the reason why they didn’t vote.

Uber is also working with non-profit organizations to help get both riders and drivers registered to vote before state deadlines. Between today and Election Day, Uber will also host voter registration drives at its 125+ driver hubs throughout the country.

 


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NYC wants to build a cyber army

14:00 | 2 October

Empires rise and fall, and none more so than business empires. Whole industries that once dominated the planet are just a figment in memory’s eye, while new industries quietly grow into massive behemoths.

New York City has certainly seen its share of empires. Today, the city is a global center of finance, real estate, legal services, technology, and many, many more industries. It hosts the headquarters of roughly 10% of the Fortune 500, and the metro’s GDP is roughly equivalent to that of Canada.

So much wealth and power, and all under constant attack. The value of technology and data has skyrocketed, and so has the value of stealing and disrupting the services that rely upon it. Cyber crime and cyber wars are adding up: according to a report published jointly between McAfee and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the costs of these operations are in the hundreds of billions of dollars – and New York’s top industries such as financial services bare the brunt of the losses.

Yet, New York City has hardly been a bastion for the cybersecurity industry. Boston and Washington DC are far stronger today on the Acela corridor, and San Francisco and Israel have both made huge impacts on the space. Now, NYC’s leaders are looking to build a whole new local empire that might just act as a bulwark for its other leading ecosystems.

Today, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) announced the launch of Cyber NYC, a $30 million “catalyzing” investment designed to rapidly grow the city’s ecosystem and infrastructure for cybersecurity.

James Patchett, CEO of New York City Economic Development Corporation. (Photo from NYCEDC)

James Patchett, CEO of NYCEDC, explained in an interview with TechCrunch that cybersecurity is “both an incredible opportunity and also a huge threat.” He noted that “the financial industry has been the lifeblood of this city for our entire history,” and the costs of cybercrime are rising quickly. “It’s a lose-lose if we fail to invest in the innovation that keeps the city strong” but “it’s a win if we can create all of that innovation here and the corresponding jobs,” he said.

The Cyber NYC program is made up of a constellation of programs:

  • Partnering with Jerusalem Venture Partners, an accelerator called Hub.NYC will develop enterprise cybersecurity companies by connecting them with advisors and customers. The program will be hosted in a nearly 100,000 square foot building in SoHo.
  • Partnering with SOSA, the city will create a new, 15,000 square foot Global Cyber Center co-working facility in Chelsea, where talented individuals in the cyber industry can hang out and learn from each other through event programming and meetups.
  • With Fullstack Academy and Laguardia Community College, a Cyber Boot Camp will be created to enhance the ability of local workers to find jobs in the cybersecurity space.
  • Through an “Applied Learning Initiative,” students will be able to earn a “CUNY-Facebook Master’s Degree” in cybersecurity. The program has participation from the City University of New York, New York University, Columbia University, Cornell Tech, and iQ4.
  • With Columbia University’s Technology Ventures, NYCEDC will introduce a program called Inventors to Founders that will work to commercialize university research.

NYCEDC’s map of the NYC Cyber initiative. (Photo from NYCEDC)

In addition to Facebook, other companies have made commitments to the program, including Goldman Sachs, MasterCard, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and edX.org. Two Goldman execs, Chief Operational Risk Officer Phil Venables and Chief Information Security Officer Andy Ozment, have joined the initiative’s advisory boards.

The NYCEDC estimates that there are roughly 6,000 cybersecurity professionals currently employed in New York City. Through these programs, it estimates that the number could increase by another 10,000. Patchett said that “it is as close to a no-brainer in economic development because of the opportunity and the risk.”

From Jerusalem to New York

To tackle its ambitious cybersecurity goals, the NYCEDC is partnering with two venture firms, Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) and SOSA, with significant experience investing, operating, and growing companies in the sector.

Jerusalem-based JVP is an established investor that should help founders at Hub.NYC get access to smart capital, sector expertise, and the entrepreneurial experience needed to help their startups scale. JVP invests in early-, late-, and growth-stage companies focused on cybersecurity, big data, media, and enterprise software.

JVP will run Hub.NYC, a startup accelerator that will help cybersecurity startups connect with customers and mentors. (Photo from JVP)

Erel Margalit, who founded the firm in 1993, said that “If you look at what JVP has done … we create ecosystems.” Working with Jerusalem’s metro government, Margalit and the firm pioneered a number of institutions such as accelerators that turned Israel into an economic powerhouse in the cybersecurity industry. His social and economic work eventually led him to the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, where he served as an MP from 2015-2017 with the Labor Party.

Israel is a very small country with a relative dearth of large companies though, a huge challenge for startups looking to scale up. “Today if you want to build the next-generation leading companies, you have to be not only where the ideas are being brewed, but also where the solutions are being [purchased],” Margalit explained. “You need to be working with the biggest customers in the world.”

That place, in his mind, is New York City. It’s a city he has known since his youth – he worked at Moshe’s Moving IN NYC while attending Columbia as a grad student where he got his PhD in philosophy. Now, he can pack up his own success from Israel and scale it up to an even larger ecosystem.

Since its founding, JVP has successfully raised $1.1 billion across eight funds, including a $60 million fund specifically focused on the cybersecurity space. Over the same period, the firm has seen 32 successful exits, including cybersecurity companies CyberArk (IPO in 2014) and CyActive (Acquired by PayPal in 2013).

JVP’s efforts in the cybersecurity space also go beyond the investment process, with the firm recently establishing an incubator, known as JVP Cyber Labs, specifically focused on identifying, nurturing and building the next wave of Israeli cybersecurity and big data companies.

On average, the firm has focused on deals in the $5-$10 million range, with a general proclivity for earlier-stage companies where the firm can take a more hands-on mentorship role. Some of JVP’s notable active portfolio companies include Source Defense, which uses automation to protect against website supply chain attacks, ThetaRay, which uses big data to analyze threats, and Morphisec, which sells endpoint security solutions.

Opening up innovation with SOSA

The self-described “open-innovation platform,” SOSA is a global network of corporations, investors, and entrepreneurs that connects major institutions with innovative startups tackling core needs.

SOSA works closely with its partner startups, providing investor sourcing, hands-on mentorship and the physical resources needed to achieve growth. The group’s areas of expertise include cybersecurity, fintech, automation, energy, mobility, and logistics. Though headquartered in Tel Aviv, SOSA recently opened an innovation lab in New York, backed by major partners including HP, RBC, and Jefferies.

With the eight-floor Global Cyber Center located in Chelsea, it is turning its attention to an even more ambitious agenda. Uzi Sheffer, CEO of SOSA, said to TechCrunch in a statement that “The Global Cyber Center will serve as a center of gravity for the entire cybersecurity industry where they can meet, interact and connect to the finest talent from New York, the States, Israel and our entire global network.”

SOSA’s new building in Chelsea will be a center for the cybersecurity community (Photo from SOSA)

With an already established presence in New York, SOSA’s local network could help spur the local corporate participation key to the EDC’s plan, while SOSA’s broader global network can help achieve aspirations of turning New York City into a global cybersecurity leader.

It is no coincidence that both of the EDC’s venture partners are familiar with the Israeli cybersecurity ecosystem. Israel has long been viewed as a leader in cybersecurity innovation and policy, and has benefited from the same successful public-private sector coordination New York hopes to replicate.

Furthermore, while New York hopes to create organic growth within its own local ecosystem, the partnerships could also benefit the city if leading Israeli cybersecurity companies look to relocate due to the limited size of the Israeli market.

Big plans, big results?

While we spent comparatively less time discussing them, the NYCEDC’s educational programs are particularly interesting. Students will be able to take classes at any university in the five-member consortium, and transfer credits freely, a concept that the NYCEDC bills as “stackable certificates.”

Meanwhile, Facebook has partnered with the City University of New York to create a professional master’s degree program to train up a new class of cybersecurity leaders. The idea is to provide a pathway to a widely-respected credential without having to take too much time off of work. NYCEDC CEO Patchett said, ”you probably don’t have the time to take two years off to do a masters program,” and so the program’s flexibility should provide better access to more professionals.

Together, all of these disparate programs add up to a bold attempt to put New York City on the map for cybersecurity. Talent development, founder development, customer development – all have been addressed with capital and new initiatives.

Will the community show up at initiatives like the Global Cyber Center, pictured here? (Photo from SOSA)

Yet, despite the time that NYCEDC has spent to put all of these partners together cohesively under one initiative, the real challenge starts with getting the community to participate and build upon these nascent institutions. “What we hear from folks a lot of time,” Patchett said to us, is that “there is no community for cyber professionals in New York City.” Now the buildings have been placed, but the people need to walk through the front doors.

The city wants these programs to be self-sustaining as soon as possible. “In all cases, we don’t want to support these ecosystems forever,” Patchett said. “If we don’t think they’re financially sustainable, we haven’t done our job right.” He believes that “there should be a natural incentive to invest once the ecosystem is off the ground.”

As the world encounters an ever increasing array of cyber threats, old empires can falter – and new empires can grow. Cybersecurity may well be one of the next great industries, and it may just provide the needed defenses to ensure that New York City’s other empires can live another day.

 


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