Seattle’s new venture firm, Flying Fish, holds a first close on its targeted $80 million fund

The founding partners of the new Seattle-based venture firm Flying Fish  met as angel investors deploying capital in the talent-heavy, cash-light region around Amazon and Microsoft’s corporate headquarters.

“We’ve underperformed relative to the talent pool,” is how Heather Redman, one of the firm’s three founding partners describes the region.

Well, now Flying Fish has held a first close of $23 million on a targeted $80 million fund to bring some much needed institutional capital at the seed and Series A stage to a geography that’s seen a number of successful exits and a wealth of talented engineers crop up, but little in the way of regional investor talent to support it.

Seattle’s success extends beyond Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash. headquarters and Amazon’s downtown death star. There’re travel behemoths like Expedia, real estate riches pouring from Zillow and Redfin, titans of visualization and business intelligence software like Tableau, and up and coming success stories like Avalera.

All of those companies are bringing in talent from elsewhere to complement Seattle’s growing reputation as a hub for artificial intelligence and machine learning research and engineering talent thanks to programs at the University of Washington .

Joining Redman, a former executive at AtomShockwave, Inc., Getty Images, Inc., and PhotoDisc, Inc.; are two former Microsoft employees Geoff Harris, who served as General Manager for the Speech and Natural Language team, and Frank Chang. Harris and Chang met while working on natural language processing and machine learning for the gargantuan that Gates built before Chang absconded to Jeff Bezos’ Amazonian environs.

With its $28 million first close, Flying Fish is well on its way to joining a host of other investment firms that have launched or closed new investment funds in the Pacific Northwest since the beginning of the year. In all, at least $140 million in new capital has been committed to venture firms in the region like PSL Ventures, the venture capital firm started by development studio Pioneer Square Labs, and Founders Co-op, a longtime early stage investor on the Seattle scene.

 

“What we believe is that with the additional VC [firms] beginning to be formed here… that is going to increase the number of company starts geometrically,” says Redman. “The talent is here, the entrepreneurial spirit is here and the use is here… but [entrepreneurs] want to do it where there is the capital to support them.”

The firm is targeting around 25 investments for its $85 million first fund with a focus on machine learning, artificial intelligence and software services. Investments will range between $500,000 and $5 million, according to the firm’s partners.

Already, Flying Fish has put money to work in seven new deals.

  • Ad Lightning – Provides publishers a tool to manage bad ads on their sites
  • Otto Robotics – Robotic automation for the fast food industry. (still in stealth – no website)
  • MessageYes (Sold to Nordstrom) – Developers of an ecommerce chatbot over SMS, Facebook messenger etc.
  • Element Data – Developers of a decision engine that takes into account human emotion in the decision-making process
  • Tomorrow – Providing financial planning services such as wills, trusts and insurance 
  • Finn.ai – Pitching a financial services chatbot to engage with banks over Facebook messengers and other like platforms
  • Streem – Offering an augmented reality application connecting consumers with professionals in the home improvement and maintenance market

Can data science save social media?

The unfettered internet is too often used for malicious purposes and is frequently woefully inaccurate. Social media — especially Facebook — has failed miserably at protecting user privacy and blocking miscreants from sowing discord.

That’s why CEO Mark Zuckerberg was just forced to testify about user privacy before both houses of Congress. And now governmental regulation of FaceBook and other social media appears to be a fait accompli.

At this key juncture, the crucial question is whether regulation — in concert with FaceBook’s promises to aggressively mitigate its weaknesses — correct the privacy abuses and continue to fulfill FaceBook’s goal of giving people the power to build transparent communities, bringing the world closer together?

The answer is maybe.

What has not been said is that FaceBook must embrace data science methodologies initially created in the bowels of the federal government to help protect its two billion users. Simultaneously, FaceBook must still enable advertisers — its sole source of revenue — to get the user data required to justify their expenditures.

Specifically, Facebook must promulgate and embrace what is known in high-level security circles as homomorphic encryption (HE), often considered the “Holy Grail” of cryptography, and data provenance (DP). HE would enable Facebook, for example, to generate aggregated reports about its user psychographic profiles so that advertisers could still accurately target groups of prospective customers without knowing their actual identities.

Meanwhile, data provenance – the process of tracing and recording true identities and the origins of data and its movement between data bases – could unearth the true identities of Russian perpetrators and other malefactors or at least identify unknown provenance, adding much needed transparency in cyberspace.

Both methodologies are extraordinarily complex. IBM and Microsoft, in addition to the National Security Agency, have been working on HE for years but the technology has suffered from significant performance challenges. Progress is being made, however. IBM, for example, has been granted a patent on a particular HE method – a strong hint it’s seeking a practical solution – and last month proudly announced that its rewritten HE encryption library now works up to 75 times faster. Maryland-based ENVEIL, a startup staffed by the former NSA HE team, has broken the performance barriers required to produce a commercially viable version of HE, benchmarking millions of times faster than IBM in tested use cases.

How Homomorphic Encryption Would Help FaceBook

HE is a technique used to operate on and draw useful conclusions from encrypted data without decrypting it, simultaneously protecting the source of the information. It is useful to FaceBook because its massive inventory of personally identifiable information is the foundation of the economics underlying its business model. The more comprehensive the datasets about individuals, the more precisely advertising can be targeted.

HE could keep Facebook information safe from hackers and inappropriate disclosure, but still extract the essence of what the data tells advertisers. It would convert encrypted data into strings of numbers, do math with these strings, and then decrypt the results to get the same answer it would if the data wasn’t encrypted at all.

A particularly promising sign for HE emerged last year, when Google revealed a new marketing measurement tool that relies on this technology to allow advertisers to see whether their online ads result in in-store purchases.

Unearthing this information requires analyzing datasets belonging to separate organizations, notwithstanding the fact that these organizations pledge to protect the privacy and personal information of the data subjects. HE skirts this by generating aggregated, non-specific reports about the comparisons between these datasets.

In pilot tests, HE enabled Google to successfully analyze encrypted data about who clicked on an advertisement in combination with another encrypted multi-company dataset that recorded credit card purchase records. With this data in hand, Google was able to provide reports to advertisers summarizing the relationship between the two databases to conclude, for example, that five percent of the people who clicked  on an ad wound up purchasing in a store.

Data Provenance

Data provenance has a markedly different core principle. It’s based on the fact that digital information is atomized into 1’s and 0’s with no intrinsic truth. The dual digits exist only to disseminate information, whether accurate or widely fabricated. A well-crafted lie can easily be indistinguishable from the truth and distributed across the internet. What counts is the source of these 1’s and 0’s. In short, is it legitimate?  What is the history of the 1’ and 0’s?

The art market, as an example, deploys DP to combat fakes and forgeries of the world’s greatest paintings, drawing and sculptures. It uses DP techniques to create a verifiable, chain-of-custody for each piece of the artwork, preserving the integrity of the market.

Much the same thing can be done in the online world. For example, a FaceBook post referencing a formal statement by a politician, with an accompanying photo, would  have provenance records directly linking the post to the politician’s press release and even the specifics of the photographer’s camera. The goal – again – is ensuring that data content is legitimate.

Companies such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, British-based Tesco and Swedish-based H&M, an international clothing retailer, are using or experimenting with new technologies to provide provenance data to the marketplace.

Let’s hope that Facebook and its social media brethren begin studying HE and DP thoroughly and implement it as soon as feasible. Other strong measures — such as the upcoming implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which will use a big stick to secure personally identifiable information – essentially should be cloned in the U.S. What is best, however, are multiple avenues to enhance user privacy and security, while hopefully preventing breaches in the first place. Nothing less than the long-term viability of social media giants is at stake.

Facebook, Microsoft and others sign anti-cyberattack pledge

Microsoft, Facebook and Cloudflare are among a group of technology firms that have signed a joint pledge committing publicly not to assist offensive government cyberattacks.

The pledge also commits them to work together to enhance security awareness and the resilience of the global tech ecosystem.

The four top-line principles the firms are agreeing to are [ALL CAPS theirs]:

  • 1. WE WILL PROTECT ALL OF OUR USERS AND CUSTOMERS EVERYWHERE.
  • 2. WE WILL OPPOSE CYBERATTACKS ON INNOCENT CITIZENS AND ENTERPRISES FROM ANYWHERE.
  • 3. WE WILL HELP EMPOWER USERS, CUSTOMERS AND DEVELOPERS TO STRENGTHEN CYBERSECURITY PROTECTION.
  • 4. WE WILL PARTNER WITH EACH OTHER AND WITH LIKEMINDED GROUPS TO ENHANCE CYBERSECURITY.

You can read the full Cybersecurity Tech Accord here.

So far 34 companies have signed up to the initiative, which was announced on the eve of the RSA Conference in San Francisco, including ARM, Cloudflare, Facebook, Github, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Telefonica.

In a blog post announcing the initiative Microsoft’s Brad Smith writes that it’s hopeful more will soon follow.

“Protecting our online environment is in everyone’s interest,” says Smith. “The companies that are part of the Cybersecurity Tech Accord promise to defend and advance technology’s benefits for society. And we commit to act responsibly, to protect and empower our users and customers, and help create a safer and more secure online world.”

Notably not on the list are big tech’s other major guns: Amazon, Apple and Google — nor indeed most major mobile carriers (TC’s parent Oath’s parent Verizon is not yet a signee, for example).

And, well, tech giants are often the most visible commercial entities bowing to political pressure to comply with ‘regulations’ that do the opposite of enhance the security of their users living under certain regimes — merely to ensure continued market access for themselves.

But the accord raises more nuanced questions than who has not (yet) spilt ink on it.

What does ‘protect’ mean in this cybersecurity context? Are the companies which have signed up to the accord committing to protect their users from government mass surveillance programs, for example?

What about the problem of exploits being stockpiled by intelligence agencies — which might later leak and wreak havoc on innocent web users — as was apparently the case with the Wannacrypt malware.

Will the undersigned companies fight against (their own and other) governments doing that — in order to reduce security risks for all Internet users?

“We will strive to protect all our users and customers from cyberattacks — whether an individual, organization or government — irrespective of their technical acumen, culture or location, or the motives of the attacker, whether criminal or geopolitical,” sure sounds great in principle.

In practice this stuff gets very muddy and murky, very fast.

Perhaps the best element here is the commitment between the firms to work together for the greater security cause — including “to improve technical collaboration, coordinated vulnerability disclosure, and threat sharing, as well as to minimize the levels of malicious code being introduced into cyberspace”.

That at least may bear some tangible fruit.

Other security issues are far too tightly bound up with geopolitics for even a number of well-intentioned technology firms to be able to do much to shift the needle.

Facebook, Microsoft and others sign anti-cyberattack pledge

Microsoft, Facebook and Cloudflare are among a group of technology firms that have signed a joint pledge committing publicly not to assist offensive government cyberattacks.

The pledge also commits them to work together to enhance security awareness and the resilience of the global tech ecosystem.

The four top-line principles the firms are agreeing to are [ALL CAPS theirs]:

  • 1. WE WILL PROTECT ALL OF OUR USERS AND CUSTOMERS EVERYWHERE.
  • 2. WE WILL OPPOSE CYBERATTACKS ON INNOCENT CITIZENS AND ENTERPRISES FROM ANYWHERE.
  • 3. WE WILL HELP EMPOWER USERS, CUSTOMERS AND DEVELOPERS TO STRENGTHEN CYBERSECURITY PROTECTION.
  • 4. WE WILL PARTNER WITH EACH OTHER AND WITH LIKEMINDED GROUPS TO ENHANCE CYBERSECURITY.

You can read the full Cybersecurity Tech Accord here.

So far 34 companies have signed up to the initiative, which was announced on the eve of the RSA Conference in San Francisco, including ARM, Cloudflare, Facebook, Github, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Telefonica.

In a blog post announcing the initiative Microsoft’s Brad Smith writes that it’s hopeful more will soon follow.

“Protecting our online environment is in everyone’s interest,” says Smith. “The companies that are part of the Cybersecurity Tech Accord promise to defend and advance technology’s benefits for society. And we commit to act responsibly, to protect and empower our users and customers, and help create a safer and more secure online world.”

Notably not on the list are big tech’s other major guns: Amazon, Apple and Google — nor indeed most major mobile carriers (TC’s parent Oath’s parent Verizon is not yet a signee, for example).

And, well, tech giants are often the most visible commercial entities bowing to political pressure to comply with ‘regulations’ that do the opposite of enhance the security of their users living under certain regimes — merely to ensure continued market access for themselves.

But the accord raises more nuanced questions than who has not (yet) spilt ink on it.

What does ‘protect’ mean in this cybersecurity context? Are the companies which have signed up to the accord committing to protect their users from government mass surveillance programs, for example?

What about the problem of exploits being stockpiled by intelligence agencies — which might later leak and wreak havoc on innocent web users — as was apparently the case with the Wannacrypt malware.

Will the undersigned companies fight against (their own and other) governments doing that — in order to reduce security risks for all Internet users?

“We will strive to protect all our users and customers from cyberattacks — whether an individual, organization or government — irrespective of their technical acumen, culture or location, or the motives of the attacker, whether criminal or geopolitical,” sure sounds great in principle.

In practice this stuff gets very muddy and murky, very fast.

Perhaps the best element here is the commitment between the firms to work together for the greater security cause — including “to improve technical collaboration, coordinated vulnerability disclosure, and threat sharing, as well as to minimize the levels of malicious code being introduced into cyberspace”.

That at least may bear some tangible fruit.

Other security issues are far too tightly bound up with geopolitics for even a number of well-intentioned technology firms to be able to do much to shift the needle.

Skype targets podcasters and live streamers with a new feature for recording video calls

Microsoft is hoping to capitalize on the popularity of podcasts and videos to make Skype more appealing to content creators. The company is now testing a new “Skype for Content Creators” mode for its desktop app that will allow creators to place and record calls using Skype software, which can either be streamed live or imported into other apps for further editing before posting.

The feature is currently in “preview” – Microsoft’s term for software that’s being tested with select users ahead of a broader, public release.

Explains the company in a blog post, Skype for Content Creators will allow digital broadcasters, streamers, and vloggers to record videos, podcasts and live streaming calls “without having to invest in expensive studio equipment.” Instead, Windows 10 and Mac users will be able to use the Content Creators mode to place and record their calls directly in NDI-enabled software like WirecastXsplit, or Vmix, for example. Users won’t need other recording or screen capture software, the company notes. The look-and-feel of the call can be customized, too.

The feature will work best for those who record video chats with other remote guests – like for a weekly call-in show – but it can also work for calls that are live streamed to other platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

If the call is not being live-streamed, the recording can be imported into other apps for further editing, like Adobe Premier Pro or Adobe Audition.

This isn’t the first time Skype has sought to leverage a specific use case to encourage people to adopt its communication software. For instance, the company launched Skype Interviews last year, aimed at recruiters who want to test candidates’ coding skills during their chats. In both cases, Skype is targeting a subset of its users with features built just for them. Retaining users and appealing to newcomers is critical as Skype’s growth has plateaued in recent years. At Microsoft Build 2016, the company said it has 300 million users – the same figure it cited on Skype’s 10th birthday several years prior.

Microsoft isn’t the only company trying to simply streaming video for content creators, as of late, however. YouTube in March also launched a new feature that lets users “go live” from their desktop without an encoder.

Skype for Content Creators will go live this summer, but will be demoed at the NAB conference in Las Vegas next week.

The high-stakes battle for the Pentagon’s winner-take-all cloud contract

There is a battle afoot, one you might not have heard about yet, but it involves a high-stakes winner-take-all contract for the Department of Defense’s cloud contract. It could involve billions of dollars and when a humongous sum of money meets a set of powerful tech companies, intrigue can’t be far behind.

The story even has a Star Wars reference with the Pentagon dubbing the project the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (or JEDI for short). Who says the Pentagon is staid?

The tech names involved include the likes of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle and Rean Cloud, LLC. Wait, what’s that last one doing there you may ask? Good questions, but Rean Cloud, a little known Maryland Amazon Web Services partner was awarded a five-year contract worth up to $950 million in February to help the DoD with cloud procurement and pricing, likely a first step ahead of the cloud contract itself.

It didn’t take long for the big guys to start howling and Oracle (you will hear that name more than once in this story), filed a formal complaint over the deal with Government Accountability Office. Not long after, the DoD announced that the deal was being scaled back from $950 million to $65 million, still a substantial contract for a systems integrator you probably never heard of, but a fraction of the original deal.

A couple of days later, the Pentagon announced it was starting a bidding process for the cloud contract itself. That would be a winner-take-all affair for a contract that could stretch for a decade and involve many billions of dollars. The exact number isn’t clear, but suffice to say it’s a humongous sum and every enterprise cloud company wants this deal.

Photo” Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

As you might expect with a huge deal in Washington, DC, it didn’t take long for politics to enter into the fray. For starters, the Congress began to question the single winner component. They included language in the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill directing the DoD to explain within 60 days how it plans to acquire cloud services in light of the parameters of its cloud bidding process. In particular, Congress was concerned about the Pentagon being locked into a single vendor for a decade with no real way to back out and no competition after the initial bidding process.

Next, the president began a series of Tweets against Amazon, not necessarily related to the cloud or the Pentagon contract, but Amazon is the biggest cloud company bidding for a major contract. It’s worth noting that White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied the president’s anti-Amazon stance would play a role in the contract award.

Photo Illustration: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Perhaps not, but Bloomberg reported that Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz met with the president this week and reportedly criticized the bidding process (again), which could favor Amazon. If you’re wondering why rivals like Oracle and others are concerned, they probably have reason to be. Oracle came very late to the cloud game and is playing catch-up. Certainly a contract of this size could go a long way towards giving the company a huge market share and credibility lift.

Amazon is the market leader by far with estimates running between 30 and 40 percent of cloud infrastructure as a service marketshare. In a report on fourth quarter cloud revenue, Synergy Research wrote, “AWS maintained its dominant position with revenues that exceeded the next four closest competitors combined, despite huge strides being made by Microsoft .”

Amazon has more than a marketshare advantage, it also has experience implementing large cloud projects for the intelligence community including a $600 million private cloud it built for the CIA in 2013. Of course, Microsoft already has a $927 million contract with the DoD, so this isn’t necessarily a slam dunk for AWS.

With so much drama involved in the size and scope of the project, the president’s anti-Amazon tweets, Congress’s concerns; chances are nobody will be happy with the results except the bid winner. Stay tuned because this isn’t over by a long shot.

We reached out to Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle for comments on this story, but did not hear back by publication. If we hear from them, we will update the story with comments.

LinkedIn is introducing auto-playing video ads

In a move that was probably inevitable, LinkedIn is introducing video advertising as one its Sponsored Content formats.

Although my LinkedIn newsfeed already includes plenty of video, Abhishek Shrivastava, director of product for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions, explained for advertisers, the only way to incorporate videos was to link to other websites. Now, the Microsoft -owned professional network is rolling out a native ad format, where video ads will appear as standalone posts in the feed.

The video ads will play automatically, though with the sound turned off initially.

Other social networks introduced video advertising years ago, but LinkedIn is a different environment — Shrivastava touted this as a way to bring “sight, sound and motion” to business marketers, while the company announcement declares that the company is going “all in on B2B video.”

Shrivastava added that while most videos are seen as ideal for “top of the funnel” marketing (i.e., building awareness, rather than sealing the deal), LinkedIn’s Video for Sponsored Content is designed to work “across the funnel.”

LinkedIn video ads

So yes, the videos can be designed to build brand awareness, but they can also point directly to the advertisers’ desktop or mobile website, or even be used to collect leads. And they can incorporate LinkedIn’s ad targeting and conversion tracking capabilities.

LinkedIn says it’s been testing the format with more than 700 advertisers since October, resulting in engagement times that are nearly three times longer than those for regular Sponsored Content.

In addition to the video ads, LinkedIn is also introducing the ability for businesses to include native video on their Company Pages — so a company that’s hiring might highlight a video about their culture and work environment.

LinkedIn says it will be rolling out these capabilities to all businesses over the next few weeks.

Microsoft surges 8% after Morgan Stanley says it will reach $1 trillion market cap

The Dow surged 669 points on Monday after trade tensions eased.

Tech stocks like Amazon and Apple saw gains, but the biggest winner of all was Microsoft .

The Seattle tech giant, which is a Dow 30 company, benefitted not only from the solid stock market day, but also because a Morgan Stanley analyst had kind things to say about it.

Keith Weiss wrote in a note to clients that he’s raising his 12-month price target to $130, an almost 50% increase from the $90 shares traded at last week. This would give the company a market cap of $1 trillion. He spoke about it further on CNBC.

He’s particularly bullish on Microsoft’s cloud business. He believes that it will continue to do well, despite competition from Amazon and Google.

The race to $1 trillion has been talked about for several years. Apple is currently in the lead with a market cap of $877 billion. Amazon is at $753 billion. And After Monday’s strong day of trading, Microsoft is nearing it at $722 billion.

In general, stocks have done very well in recent years, with the Dow up nearly 10,000 points from where it was five years ago.

As the CLOUD Act sneaks into the omnibus, big tech butts heads with privacy advocates

As the House advances a 2,232-page spending bill meant to avert a government shutdown, privacy advocates and big tech companies aren’t seeing eye to eye about a small piece of legislation tucked away on page 2,212.

The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act, a.k.a. the CLOUD Act (H.R.4943S.2383) aims to simplify the way that international law enforcement groups obtain personal data stored by U.S.-based tech platforms — but the changes to that process are controversial.

As it stands, if a foreign government wants to obtain that data in the course of an investigation, a series of steps are necessary. First, that government must have a Mutual Legal Assistant Treaty (MLAT) with the U.S. government in place, and those treaties are ratified by the Senate. Then it can send a request to the U.S. Department of Justice, but first the DOJ needs to seek approval from a judge. After those requirements are met, the request can move along to the tech company hosting the data that the foreign government is seeking.

The debate around the CLOUD Act also taps into tech company concerns that foreign nations may move to pass laws in favor of data localization, or the process of storing users’ personal data within the borders of the country of which they are a citizen. That trend would prove both costly for cloud data giants and difficult, upending the established model of cloud data storage that optimizes for efficiency rather than carefully sorting out what data is stored within the borders of which country.

In a February 6 letter, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Oath (TechCrunch’s parent company) co-authored a letter calling the CLOUD Act “notable progress to protect consumers’ rights.”

In a late February blog post, Microsoft Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith addressed the issue. “The CLOUD Act creates both the incentive and the framework for governments to sit down and negotiate modern bi-lateral agreements that will define how law enforcement agencies can access data across borders to investigate crimes,” Smith wrote. “It ensures these agreements have appropriate protections for privacy and human rights and gives the technology companies that host customer data new statutory rights to stand up for the privacy rights of their customers around the world.”

In a recent opinion piece, ACLU legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani argues that the CLOUD Act sidesteps oversight from both the legislative and judicial branches, granting the attorney general and the state department too much discretion in choosing which governments the U.S. will enter into a data exchange agreement with.

The Center for Democracy and Technology also opposes the CLOUD Act on the grounds that it fails to protect the digital privacy of American citizens and the Electronic Frontier Foundation dismissed the legislation as “a new backdoor around the Fourth Amendment.” The Open Technology Institute also denounced the CLOUD Act’s provision to “allow qualifying foreign governments to enter into an executive agreement to bypass the human rights protective Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) process when seeking data in criminal investigations and to seek data directly from U.S. technology companies.”

Both organizations acknowledge that improvements to the bill do partially address some of the human rights concerns associated with not requiring an MLAT in a data sharing agreement.

“While this version of the CLOUD Act includes some new safeguards, it is still woefully inadequate to protect individual rights,” OTI Director of Surveillance & Cybersecurity Policy Sharon Bradford Franklin said of the changes.

“Critically, the bill still would permit foreign governments to obtain communications data held in the United States without any prior judicial review, and it would allow foreign governments to obtain U.S.-held communications in real time without applying the safeguards required for wiretapping by the U.S. government. ”

The Consumer Technology Association voiced its support of the altered bill in a press release issued Thursday. “CTA thanks the House of Representatives for taking steps to empower America’s digital infrastructure for the 21st century. The inclusion of the CLOUD Act and RAY BAUM’S Act in today’s legislation ensures Americans can safely create, share and collect electronic data while providing them the resources to do so.”

While some changes made aspects of the bill more palatable to digital privacy watchdogs, some are objecting to the choice to tack it onto the omnibus spending bill.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul spoke out Thursday against passing the CLOUD Act by attaching it to the spending bill.

“Tucked away in the omnibus spending bill is a provision that allows Trump, and any future president, to share Americans’ private emails and other information with countries he personally likes. That means he can strike deals with Russia or Turkey with nearly zero congressional involvement and no oversight by U.S. courts,” Wyden said. “This bill contains only toothless provisions on human rights that Trump’s cronies can meet by merely checking a box. It is legislative malpractice that Congress, without a minute of Senate debate, is rushing through the CLOUD Act on this must-pass spending bill.”

While the content of the CLOUD Act has evolved away from controversy with some modifications, the choice to pass it as part of the omnibus plan without further opportunity for public debate to examine its potential far-reaching implications is proving just as controversial as earlier forms of the legislation.

EdTech is having a renaissance, powered by the emerging world

So-called ‘EdTech’ has seen many false dawns over the years. After being lauded as the teaching platforms of the future, most MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course platforms) have not quite lived up to the superlatives made for them, and the sector has had trouble coming up with more innovative ideas for a while.

But that appears to be changing if a new wave of startups is any indication. In Dubai this weekend I was invited to judge a number of education startups which are really trying to move the need on EdTech, and in particular on a sector with almost unlimited potential. That is, education platforms aimed at the emerging world, where the hunger for scalable education is almost incalculable.

Consider this: Ethopia, now a far more stable country that it once was, contains more people under 25 than almost anywhere else, and it has a population of over 100 million people. And consider the potential for EdTech to transform countries like India, for instance. This is going to be a very interesting market in the future, as well as being an urgent issue. According to UNESCO, 264 million children do not have access to schooling, while at least 600 million more are “in school but not learning”. These are children who are not achieving even basic skills in maths and reading, which the World Bank calls a “learning crisis”.

A taste of what is to be found in this sector was showcased today at the “Next Billion Edtech Prize,” launched at the Global Education & Skills Forum (think: Davos/WEF for Education) by the Varkey Foundation to recognize the most innovative technology startups destined to have a radical impact on education in low income and emerging world countries.

The overall winner in the competition was Chatterbox, an online language school powered by refugees

This web platform harnesses the wasted talent of unemployed professionals who are refugees, offering them work as online and in-person language tutors. Based in the UK, where there is a language skills shortage estimated to cost the economy £48bn every year, Chatterbox has now signed up several UK universities and major non-profits and corporations to use its services. Having raised a seed round from impact-fund Bethnal Green Ventures, it’s now looking for further funding to expand.

Co-founder and CEO Mursal Hedayat was three years old when she arrived in the UK as a refugee from Afghanistan with her mother, a civil engineer who spoke English and three other languages fluently. “I watched her become unemployed in the UK for more than a decade. Refugees with degrees and valuable skills still face shockingly high levels of underemployment. An idea like Chatterbox has never been more urgently needed,” she says. (Indeed, the conference later heard from Al Gore who quoted research that showed millions of people will become refugees due to climate change in the next few decades).

Chatterbox’s fellow finalists for the $25,000 prize on offer were equally interesting.

Dot Learn was almost literally the same as ‘Silicon Valley’s PiedPiper. It makes online video e-learning far more accessible on slow connections for users in low-income countries, especially because it compresses educational video so making it cheaper to access. Its technology reduces the file-size of learning videos, requiring 1/100th of the bandwidth to watch. At current data prices in Kenya and Nigeria, this means a student or learner can access 5 hrs of online learning for about the cost of sending a single text message ($0.014). The startup was a notable finalist during TechCrunch’s Battlefield Africa.

TeachMeNow is a gig-economy platform for teachers. This marketplace connects teachers, experts, and mentors to students. The technology combines scheduling, payments and live virtual sessions that can connect on any device allows tens of thousands of teachers to create their own online businesses, with some earning over $100,000 last year. In addition, schools and companies including Microsoft use TeachMeNow software to create their own-branded online learning communities.

Sunny Varkey, Founder of the Varkey Foundation and the Next Billion Prize says he launched the prize because “over a billion young people – a number growing every day – are being denied what should be the birthright of every single child. The prize will highlight technology’s potential to tackle the problems that have proven too difficult for successive generations of politicians to solve.”

Other notable finalists included Learning Machine. This using the blockchain as a secure anchor of trust makes verifying the authenticity of a document instantaneously, specifically education documents like university degrees. They are now working to put all the educational records of Malta online.

Localized is a new platform for college students and aspiring professionals in emerging economies to find career guidance, role models and expertise from global professionals who share language and roots (think Slack meets Quora for college students in emerging markets, drawing on diaspora expertise).

The Biz Nation is an EdTech startup focused on empowering youth with technology skills, soft skills, entrepreneurship and financial intelligence through a methodology that improves user’s learning about creating a business.