Discover more from ex/ante
Agentic tech to counter digital authoritarianism; introducing ex/ante
The best antidote to digital authoritarianism is human agency and empowerment—over data, assets, and information. We’re launching an early-stage venture fund to build that future.
By Zoe Weinberg, Founder & Managing Partner, ex/ante
In 2021 a team of researchers investigated how TikTok and its algorithms selected content for users. What they discovered was—at least at the time—astonishing. Their research revealed that TikTok appeared to demote and shadow-ban content critical of the Chinese Communist Party, from negative coverage of the Beijing Olympics to Uighur repression. After the war in Ukraine broke out, the researchers learned that TikTok helped create an information bubble in Russia by blocking non-Russian accounts for Russian users, and was seemingly promoting pro-Putin content globally.
TikTok—the same platform that serves up beauty hacks and puppy videos—was officially a political weapon.
We live in an age of digital authoritarianism. In an internet economy powered by data, users are the product. Companies are incentivized to collect and exploit our personal data to generate profit, engendering the age of surveillance capitalism. We don’t own our data, or even know who does. Corporations capitalize on users’ content, likeness, and data to train models without our consent. Algorithms yield a set of “options” that give only the illusion of free choice. Our lives are increasingly at the mercy of systems we only partially understand.
Even worse, those with political power are using technology to strip citizens of civil liberties and freedoms. Russian hackers have attempted to manipulate elections across Western Europe, the Balkans, and the United States. Countries as diverse as Uganda, Myanmar, and Iran engage in state-sponsored internet blackouts, preventing citizens from seeking information and mobilizing. With democracy in its nineteenth consecutive year of decline worldwide, digital authoritarianism may increasingly define the next era of conflict.
I’ve seen the consequences firsthand. Working with the World Bank in South Sudan, I observed how disinformation campaigns fueled ethnic violence. As an emergency aid worker in Mosul, Iraq, I saw how ISIS had recruited and radicalized supporters through social media and messaging apps. I served on a political campaign where foreign interference presented new threats to free elections in the United States. I staffed a congressional commission studying artificial intelligence, with the goal of protecting American national security and competitiveness. And I collaborated with those very TikTok researchers to support their algorithmic investigation.
The dangers are real and pressing. But so is our opportunity to change course. That’s why, today, I’m launching ex/ante.
ex/ante is a venture fund investing in agentic tech: technology that promotes individuals’ agency and control—over their privacy, data, assets, and information. We back pre-seed and seed stage companies across three critical solutions:
Data Ownership & Privacy: Advancing user privacy and increasing individuals’ control over personal data. We see meaningful innovation in this space spanning data infrastructure, AI/ML, web3 and distributed web infrastructure, zero-knowledge, cryptography, FHE, MPC, and other PETs.
Security & Protection: Protecting individuals and organizations from virtual- and physical-world threats, including cybersecurity, risk mitigation, OSINT, and defensive solutions.
Information Integrity: Promoting integrity, transparency, accessibility, and quality of public information. This includes digital media forensics, algorithmic transparency, circumvention tools & anti-censorship, tools countering disinformation & fraud, and next-gen content platforms.
Technological breakthroughs, coupled with rising enterprise and consumer demand for privacy and control, are creating an unprecedented market opportunity for agentic tech. And in turn, it’s an opportunity to rethink the security, integrity, and value exchange of the internet.
In investing behind solutions, we can be technology-agnostic. Rather than dividing the universe of opportunities into discrete, tech-based subsectors (e.g., hardware, AI/ML, web3, cybersecurity), we focus on the nature of the problem and opportunities to solve it. “Privacy” may include tools built on fully homomorphic encryption, zero knowledge, or something far simpler. We believe this problem-based approach ensures greater longevity and fidelity to the underlying mission, allowing for flexibility and open-mindedness as technology evolves.
We are backing start-ups offering real solutions: companies like Reality Defender, building state-of-the-art deepfake detection; Lockr, working on the future of consumer identity; Anon, shaping the future of authentication and access management for AI; Pendulum, tracking narratives across video, audio, and text-based platforms; Webacy, making self-custody safer, easier, and more secure; and Bruinen, rethinking the ways that sensitive data is shared and analyzed.
Historically, capital invested in protecting democracy has focused on national security in its most traditional and circumscribed form: hardware and defense-tech. We commend efforts by investors to shore up critical defense infrastructure. But munitions alone won’t sustain a democracy crumbling from within. ex/ante is focused on a distinct, more elemental north star: the strengthening of democracy itself through technology that advances individual rights and human agency.
Until very recently, this category hasn’t had a name. We are grateful to the technologists, researchers, and activists who originated the term agentic tech, giving the world new vocabulary to describe a positive technological vision for human flourishing.1
Above all else, I always come back to the individuals who are most affected. While living in Iraq in 2017, I got to know the country’s first Bitcoin miners. They had built a small mining operation in a village near the border with Iran. Thanks to permissionless blockchain, they had achieved a level of financial independence that was otherwise unattainable. Technology may have eroded freedom in some domains, but it has the potential to deliver freedom in others.
Start-ups advancing human agency by increasing privacy, security, and information integrity have the opportunity to define the future of technology. I named the firm ex/ante because the best opportunity for intervention exists before the event occurs. With the rise of surveillance capitalism and digital authoritarianism, that time is now.
If you’re a mission-driven founder working to solve these problems, then we should talk. The scale of the threat is formidable, the scope is cross-domain, and the stakes are high. So is the opportunity.
Thank you to Michael Mosier, Brad Burnham, Brendan McCord, Jared Weinstein, Anastasia Uglova, Ryan Pripstein, Nick Chirls, Jackson Moses, and Susannah Jacob for their inspiration, contributions, and feedback.
And to that end, Anastasia Uglova and B Cavello deserve our special thanks.