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Ameelio wants to take on for-profit prison calling rackets after starting with free letters to inmates

Among the many problems with the prison system are enormous fees for things like video calls, which a handful of companies provide at grossly inflated rates. Ameelio hopes to step in and provide free communication options to inmates; Its first product, sending paper letters, is being welcomed with open arms by those with incarcerated loved ones.

Born from the minds of Yale Law students, Ameelio is their attempt to make a difference in the short term while pushing for reform in the long term, said co-founder and CEO Uzoma Orchingwa.

“I was studying mass incarceration, and the policy solutions I was writing about were going to take a long time to happen,” Orchingwa said. “It’s going to be a long battle before we can make even little inroads. So I was thinking, what can I do in the interim while I work on the longer term project of prison reform?”

He saw reports that inmates with regular communication with loved ones have better outcomes when released, but also that in many prisons, that communication was increasingly expensive and restricted. Some prisons have banned in-person meetings altogether — not surprising during a pandemic — leaving video calling at extortionate rates the only option for speaking face to face with a loved one.

Sometimes costing a dollar a minute, these fees add up quickly and, naturally, this impacts already vulnerable populations the most. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, for whom this was an issue of particular interest during her term, called the prison communication system “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”

It’s worth noting that these private, expensive calling services weren’t always the norm, but were born fairly recently as the private prison industry has expanded and multiplied the ways it makes money off inmates. Some states ban the practice, but others have established relationships with the companies that provide these services — and a healthy kickback to the state and prison, of course.

This billion-dollar industry is dominated by two companies: Securus and Global Tel Link. The service they provide is fairly rudimentary compared with those we on the outside take for granted. Video and audio calls are scheduled, recorded, skimmed for keywords, and kept available to authorities for a few months in case they’re needed.

At a time when video calls are being provided for free to billions around the world who have also been temporarily restricted from meeting in person, charging at all for it seems wrong — and charging a dollar a minute seems monstrous.

Ameelio’s crew of do-gooder law students and developers doesn’t think they can budge the private prison system overnight, so they’re starting with a different product, but one that also presents difficulties to families trying to communicate with inmates: letters.

Written mail is a common way to keep in contact with someone in prison, but there are a few obstacles that may prevent the less savvy from doing so. Ameelio facilitates this by providing an up-to-date list of correct addresses and conventions for writing to any of the thousands of criminal justice facilities around the country, as well as the correct way to look up and identify the inmate you’re trying to contact — rarely as simple as just putting their name at the top.

“The way prison addresses work, the inmate address is different from the physical address. So we scraped addresses and built a database for that, and built a way to find the different idiosyncrasies, like how many lines are necessary, what to put on each line, etc,” said co-founder Gabe Saruhashi.

Once that’s sorted, you write your letter, attach a photo if you want, and it’s printed out and sent (via direct-mail-as-a-service startup Lob). It’s easy to see how removing the friction and cost of printing, addressing and so on would lead to more frequent communication.

Since starting a couple months ago and spreading word of the service on Facebook groups and other informal means, they’ve already sent more than 4,000 letters. But while it’s nice for people to be able to send letters, Ameelio plans to cater to larger organizations that use mail at larger scales.

“The communications challenges that families have are the same challenges that criminal justice organizations and lawyers have when communicating with their clients,” explained Orchingwa. They have to manage the addresses, letter-writing and sending, and a network of people to check on recipients and other follow-up actions. “We’re talking to them, and a lot were very interested in the service we’re offering, so we’re going to roll out a version for organizations. We’re creating a business model in which these organizations, and some of them are well funded, can pay us back but also pay it forward and help keep it free for others.”

How an organization might use and track letter-writing campaigns.

Sending letters is just the opening play for Ameelio, though, but it’s also a way to make the contacts they need and research the market. Outcry against the private calling systems has been constant but the heterogeneous nature of prisons run under state policies means “we don’t have one system, we have 51 separate systems,” as Orchingwa put it. That and the fact that it makes a fair amount of money.

“There’s a lot of movement around getting Securus and Global Tel out,” he said, “But it would shift from families to the state paying, so they need to make back the money they were making from kickbacks.”

Some states have banned paid calls or never allowed them, but others are only changing their policies now in response to external pressure. It’s with these that Ameelio hopes to succeed first.

“We can start in states where there’s no strong relationship to these companies,” said Orchingwa. “You’re going to have state and county officials being asked by their constituents, ‘why are we using them when there’s a free alternative?’ ”

You may wonder whether it’s possible for a fresh young startup to build a video calling platform ready for deployment in such a short time. The team was quick to explain that the actual video call part of the product is something that, like sending letters, can be accomplished through a third party.

“The barrier right now is not at all the video infrastructure – enterprise and APIs will provide that. We already have an MVP of how that will look,” said Saruhashi. Even the hardware is pretty standard — just regular Android tablets stuck to the wall.

“The hard part is the dashboard for the [Department of Corrections],” Saruhashi continued. “They need a way to manage connections that are coming in, schedule conversations, get logs and review them when they’re done.”

But they’re also well into the development of that part, which ultimately is also only a medium-grade engineering challenge, already solved in many other contexts.

Currently the team is evaluating participation in a number of accelerators, and is already part of Mozilla’s Spring MVP Lab, the precursor to a larger incubator effort announced earlier today. “We love them,” said Mozilla’s Bart Decrem.

Right now the company is definitely early stage, with more plans than accomplishments, and they’re well aware that this is just the start — just as establishing better communications options is just the start for more comprehensive reform of the prison and justice system.

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Mozilla goes full incubator with ‘Fix The Internet’ startup lab and early stage investments

After testing the waters this spring with its incubator-esque MVP Lab, Mozilla is doubling down on the effort with a formal program dangling $75,000 investments in front of early stage companies. The focus on “a better society” and the company’s open-source clout should help differentiate it from the other options out there.

Spurred on by the success of a college hackathon using a whole four Apple Watches in February, Mozilla decided to try a more structured program in the spring. The first test batch of companies is underway, having started in April an 8-week program offering $2,500 per team member and $40,000 in prizes to give away at the end. Developers in a variety of domains were invited to apply, as long as they fit the themes of empowerment, privacy, decentralization, community, and so on.

It drew the interest of some 1,500 people in 520 projects, and 25 were chosen to receive the full package and stipend during the development of their MVP. The rest were invited to an “Open Lab” with access to some of Mozilla’s resources.

One example of what they were looking for is Ameelio, a startup whose members are hoping to render paid video calls in prisons obsolete with a free system, and provide free letter delivery to inmates as well.

“The mission of this incubator is to catalyze a new generation of internet products and services where the people are in control of how the internet is used to shape society,” said Bart Decrem, a Mozilla veteran (think Firefox 1.0) and one of the principals at the Builders Studio. “And where business models should be sustainable and valuable, but do not need to squeeze every last dollar (or ounce of attention) from the user.”

“We think we are tapping into the energy in the student and professional ‘builder communities’ around wanting to work on ideas that matter. That clarion call really resonates,” he said. Not only that, but students with canceled internships are showing up in droves, it seems — mostly computer science, but design and other disciplines as well. There are no restrictions on applicants, like country of origin, previous funding, or anything like that.

The new incubator will be divided into three tiers.

First is the “Startup Studio,” which involves a $75,000 investment, “a post-money SAFE for 3.5% of the company when the SAFE converts (or we will participate in an already active funding round),” Decrem clarified.

Below that, as far as pecuniary commitment goes, is the “MVP Lab,” similar to the spring program but offering a total of $16,000 per team. And below that is the Open Lab again, but with ten $10,000 prizes rather than a top 3.

There are no hard numbers on how many teams will make up the two subsidized tiers, but think 20-30 total as opposed to 50 or 100. Meanwhile, collaboration, cross-pollination, and open source code is encouraged, as you might expect in a Mozilla project. And the social good aspect is strong as well, as a sampling of the companies in the spring batch shows.

Neutral is a browser plugin that shows the carbon footprint of your Amazon purchases, adding some crucial guilt to transactions we forget are powered by footsore humans and gas-guzzling long-distance goods transport. Meething, Cabal, and Oasis are taking on video conferencing, team chat, and social feeds from a decentralized standpoint, using the miracles of modern internet architecture to accomplish with distributed systems what once took centralized servers.

This summer will see the program inaugurated, but it’s only “the beginning of a multiyear effort,” Decrem said.

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Mozilla names long-time chairwoman Mitchell Baker as CEO

Mozilla Corporation announced today that it has chosen long-time chairwoman Mitchell Baker to be CEO, replacing Chris Beard who announced he would be stepping down at the end of the year last August.
Baker represents a logical choice to lead the company. At a time of great turmoil in the world at large, she brings the stability of someone who has been with Mozilla Corporation since 2003. Writing in a company blog post, she certainly recognized the challenges ahead, navigating through the current economic uncertainty and the competitive challenges the company faces with its flagship Firefox browser..
“It’s a time …

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Daily Crunch: Mozilla lays off 70

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Mozilla lays off 70 as it waits for new products to generate revenue

In an internal memo, Mozilla chairwoman and interim CEO Mitchell Baker specifically mentions the slow rollout of the organization’s new revenue-generating products as the reason for the cuts. The overall number may end up being higher than 70, as Mozilla is still looking into how this decision will affect workers in the U.K. and France.

“Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances,” Baker wrote. “This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.”

2. Apple buys edge-based AI startup Xnor.ai for a reported $200M

Xnor.ai began as a process for making machine learning algorithms highly efficient — so efficient that they could run on even the lowest tier of hardware out there, things like embedded electronics in security cameras. This acquisition makes sense, as Apple clearly intends for its devices to operate independent of the cloud when it comes to tasks like facial recognition, natural language processing and augmented reality.

3. The US government should stop demanding tech companies compromise on encryption

In a tweet late Tuesday, President Trump criticized Apple for refusing “to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements” — referring to a locked iPhone that belonged to a Saudi airman who killed three U.S sailors in December. Zack Whittaker explains why the government’s argument is a red herring. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

4. Mojo Vision’s AR contact lenses are very cool, but many questions remain

The company’s latest demos involve holding a lens or device close to the eye in order to get a feel for what an eventual AR contact lens would look like.

5. Google Cloud gets a premium support plan with 15-minute response times

The premium plan, which Google will charge for based on your monthly Google Cloud Platform spend (with a minimum cost of around $12,500 per month), promises a 15-minute response time in situations when an application or infrastructure is unusable in production.

6. Amazon’s fresh $1B investment in India is not a big favor, says India trade minister

A day after Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos announced that his company is pumping in an additional $1 billion into its India operations, the nation’s trade minister Piyush Goyal said he wasn’t impressed.

7. Companies take baby steps toward home robots at CES

CES is slowly, but steadily, starting to take robotics more seriously. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Source: TechCrunch

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Mozilla lays off 70 as it waits for new products to generate revenue

Mozilla laid off about 70 employees today, TechCrunch has learned.

In an internal memo, Mozilla chairwoman and interim CEO Mitchell Baker specifically mentions the slow rollout of the organization’s new revenue-generating products as the reason for why it needed to take this decision. The overall number may still be higher, though, as Mozilla is still looking into how this decision will affect workers in the UK and France. In 2018, Mozilla Corporation (as opposed to the much smaller Mozilla Foundation) said it had about 1,000 employees worldwide.

“You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen,” Baker writes in her memo. “Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.”

Baker says laid-off employees will receive “generous exit packages” and outplacement support. She also notes that the leadership team looked into shutting down the Mozilla innovation fund but decided that it needed it in order to continue developing new products. In total, Mozilla is dedicating $43 million to building new products.

“As we look to the future, we know we must take bold steps to evolve and ensure the strength and longevity of our mission,” Baker writes. “Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances. This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.”

The organization last reported major layoffs in 2017.

Over the course of the last few months, Mozilla started testing a number of new products, most of which will be subscription-based once they launch. The marquee feature here is including its Firefox Private Network and a device-level VPN service that is yet to launch but will cost around $4.99 per month.

All of this is part of the organization’s plans to become less reliant on income from search partnerships and to create more revenue channels. In 2018, the latest year for which Mozilla has published its financial records, about 91 percent of its royalty revenues came from search contracts.

We have reached out to Mozilla for comment and will update this post once we hear more.

Update (1pm PT): In a statement posted to the Mozilla blog, Mitchell Baker reiterates that Mozilla had to make these cuts in order to fund innovation. “Mozilla has a strong line of sight on future revenue generation from our core business,” she writes. “In some ways, this makes this action harder, and we are deeply distressed about the effect on our colleagues. However, to responsibly make additional investments in innovation to improve the internet, we can and must work within the limits of our core finances”


Here is the full memo:

Office of the CEO <officeoftheceo@mozilla.com>
to all-moco-mofo

Hi all,

I have some difficult news to share. With the support of the entire Steering Committee and our Board, we have made an extremely tough decision: over the course of today, we plan to eliminate about 70 roles from across MoCo. This number may be slightly larger as we are still in a consultation process in the UK and France, as the law requires, on the exact roles that may be eliminated there. We are doing this with the utmost respect for each and every person who is impacted and will go to great lengths to take care of them by providing generous exit packages and outplacement support. Most will not join us in Berlin. I will send another note when we have been able to talk to the affected people wherever possible, so that you will know when the notifications/outreach are complete.

This news likely comes as a shock and I am sorry that we could not have been more transparent with you along the way. This is never my desire. Reducing our headcount was something the Steering Committee considered as part of our 2020 planning and budgeting exercise only after all other avenues were explored. The final decision was made just before the holiday break with the work to finalize the exact set of roles affected continuing into early January (there are exceptions in the UK and France where we are consulting on decisions.) I made the decision not to communicate about this until we had a near-final list of roles and individuals affected.

Even though I expect it will be difficult to digest right now, I would like to share more about what led to this decision. Perhaps you can come back to it later, if that’s easier.

You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen. Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.

This approach is prudent certainly, but challenging practically. In our case, it required difficult decisions with painful results. Regular annual pay increases, bonuses and other costs which increase from year-to-year as well as a continuing need to maintain a separate, substantial innovation fund, meant that we had to look for considerable savings across Mozilla as part of our 2020 planning and budgeting process. This process ultimately led us to the decision to reduce our workforce.

At this point, you might ask if we considered foregoing the separate innovation fund, continuing as we did in 2019. The answer is yes but we ultimately decided we could not, in good faith, adopt this. Mozilla’s future depends on us excelling at our current work and developing new offerings to expand our impact. And creating the new products we need to change the future requires us to do things differently, including allocating funds, $43M to be specific, for this purpose. We will discuss our plans for making innovation robust and successful in increasing detail as we head into, and then again at, the All Hands, rather than trying to do so here.

As we look to the future, we know we must take bold steps to evolve and ensure the strength and longevity of our mission. Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances. This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.

I ask that we all do what we can to support each other through this difficult period.

Mitchell

Source: TechCrunch