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 action. The overall number may still be higher, though, as Mozilla is still looking into how this decision will affect workers in the U.K. 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% 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 <[email protected]>
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

Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests

Mass surveillance regimes in the UK, Belgium and France which require bulk collection of digital data for a national security purpose may be at least partially in breach of fundamental privacy rights of European Union citizens, per the opinion of an influential advisor to Europe’s top court issued today.

Advocate general Campos Sánchez-Bordona’s (non-legally binding) opinion, which pertains to four references to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), takes the view that EU law covering the privacy of electronic communications applies in principle when providers of digital services are required by national laws to retain subscriber data for national security purposes.

A number of cases related to EU states’ surveillance powers and citizens’ privacy rights are dealt with in the opinion, including legal challenges brought by rights advocacy group Privacy International to bulk collection powers enshrined in the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act; and a La Quadrature du Net (and others’) challenge to a 2015 French decree related to specialized intelligence services.

At stake is a now familiar argument: Privacy groups contend that states’ bulk data collection and retention regimes have overreached the law, becoming so indiscriminately intrusive as to breach fundamental EU privacy rights — while states counter-claim they must collect and retain citizens’ data in bulk in order to fight national security threats such as terrorism.

Hence, in recent years, we’ve seen attempts by certain EU Member States to create national frameworks which effectively rubberstamp swingeing surveillance powers — that then, in turn, invite legal challenge under EU law.

The AG opinion holds with previous case law from the CJEU — specifically the Tele2 Sverige and Watson judgments — that “general and indiscriminate retention of all traffic and location data of all subscribers and registered users is disproportionate”, as the press release puts it.

Instead the recommendation is for “limited and discriminate retention” — with also “limited access to that data”.

“The Advocate General maintains that the fight against terrorism must not be considered solely in terms of practical effectiveness, but in terms of legal effectiveness, so that its means and methods should be compatible with the requirements of the rule of law, under which power and strength are subject to the limits of the law and, in particular, to a legal order that finds in the defence of fundamental rights the reason and purpose of its existence,” runs the PR in a particularly elegant passage summarizing the opinion.

The French legislation is deemed to fail on a number of fronts, including for imposing “general and indiscriminate” data retention obligations, and for failing to include provisions to notify data subjects that their information is being processed by a state authority where such notifications are possible without jeopardizing its action.

Belgian legislation also falls foul of EU law, per the opinion, for imposing a “general and indiscriminate” obligation on digital service providers to retain data — with the AG also flagging that its objectives are problematically broad (“not only the fight against terrorism and serious crime, but also defence of the territory, public security, the investigation, detection and prosecution of less serious offences”).

The UK’s bulk surveillance regime is similarly seen by the AG to fail the core “general and indiscriminate collection” test.

There’s a slight carve out for national legislation that’s incompatible with EU law being, in Sánchez-Bordona’s view, permitted to maintain its effects “on an exceptional and temporary basis”. But only if such a situation is justified by what is described as “overriding considerations relating to threats to public security or national security that cannot be addressed by other means or other alternatives, but only for as long as is strictly necessary to correct the incompatibility with EU law”.

If the court follows the opinion it’s possible states might seek to interpret such an exceptional provision as a degree of wiggle room to keep unlawful regimes running further past their legal sell-by-date.

Similarly, there could be questions over what exactly constitutes “limited” and “discriminate” data collection and retention — which could encourage states to push a ‘maximal’ interpretation of where the legal line lies.

Nonetheless, privacy advocates are viewing the opinion as a positive sign for the defence of fundamental rights.

In a statement welcoming the opinion, Privacy International dubbed it “a win for privacy”. “We all benefit when robust rights schemes, like the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, are applied and followed,” said legal director, Caroline Wilson Palow. “If the Court agrees with the AG’s opinion, then unlawful bulk surveillance schemes, including one operated by the UK, will be reined in.”

The CJEU will issue its ruling at a later date — typically between three to six months after an AG opinion.

The opinion comes at a key time given European Commission lawmakers are set to rethink a plan to update the ePrivacy Directive, which deals with the privacy of electronic communications, after Member States failed to reach agreement last year over an earlier proposal for an ePrivacy Regulation — so the AG’s view will likely feed into that process.

The opinion may also have an impact on other legislative processes — such as the talks on the EU e-evidence package and negotiations on various international agreements on cross-border access to e-evidence — according to Luca Tosoni, a research fellow at the Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law at the University of Oslo.

“It is worth noting that, under Article 4(2) of the Treaty on the European Union, “national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State”. Yet, the advocate general’s opinion suggests that this provision does not exclude that EU data protection rules may have direct implications for national security,” Tosoni also pointed out. 

“Should the Court decide to follow the opinion… ‘metadata’ such as traffic and location data will remain subject to a high level of protection in the European Union, even when they are accessed for national security purposes.  This would require several Member States — including Belgium, France, the UK and others — to amend their domestic legislation.”

Pro-privacy search engine Qwant announces more exec changes — to ‘switch focus to monetization’

More changes have been announced in the senior leadership of French pro-privacy search engine, Qwant.

President and co-founder, Eric Leandri (pictured above), will be moving from an operational to a strategic role on January 15, the company said today — while current deputy managing director for sales and marketing, Jean-Claude Ghinozzi, is being promoted to president.

Leandri will leave the president role on January 15 , although he is not departing the business entirely but will instead shift to chair a strategic and scientific committee — where he says he will focus on technology and “strategic vision”.

This committee will work with a new governance council, also being announced today, which will be chaired by Antoine Troesch, investment director of Qwant investor, Banque des Territories, per the PR.

At the same time, Mozilla veteran Tristan Nitot — who was only promoted to a new CEO role at Qwant in September — is returning to his prior job as VP of advocacy. Although Leandri told us that Nitot will retain the spokesman component of the CEO job, leaving Ghinozzi to focus on monetization — which he said is Qwant’s top priority now.

“[Nitot] is now executive VP in charge of communications and media,” Leandri told TechCrunch. “He has to take care of company advocacy. Because of my departure he will have now to represent Qwant in [the media]. He will be the voice of Qwant. But that position will give him not enough space and time to be the full-time CEO of the company — doing both is quite impossible. I have done that for years… but it’s very complicated.”

“We will now need to focus a lot on monetization and on our core business… to create a real ad platform,” he added, by way of explaining the latest round of exec restructuring. “This needs to have somebody in charge of doing that monetization process — that execution process of the scale of Qwant.”

Ghinozzi will be responsible for developing a “new phase” for the search engine so it can scale its business in Europe, Leandri also said, adding: “For my part I take on the strategy and the tech, and I’m a member of the board.”

The search engine company is also announcing that it’s closing a new funding round to support infrastructure and scaling — including taking in more financing from existing backers Banque des Territories and publishing giant Axel Springer — saying it expects this to be finalized next month.

Leandri would not provide details on the size of the round today but French news website Liberation is reporting it as €10M, citing a government source. (Per other reports in the French media Qwant has been losing tens of millions of euros per year.)

Qwant’s co-founder did trail some “very good announcements” he said are coming imminently on the user growth front in France, related to new civil companies switching to the search engine. But again he declined to publicly confirm full details at this stage — saying the news would be confirmed in around a week’s time.

Liberation‘s report points to this being confirmation that the French state will go ahead with making Qwant the default search engine across the administration — giving its product a boost of (likely) millions more regular users, and potentially unlocking access to more government funding.

The move by the French administration aligns with a wider push for digital sovereignty in a bid to avoid being too reliant on foreign tech giants. However, in recent months, doubt had been thrown on the government’s plan to switch wholesale from Google’s search engine to the homegrown search alternative — after local media raised questions over the quality of Qwant’s search results.

The government has been conducting its own technical audit of Qwant’s search engine. But, per Liberation — which says it obtained an internal government memo earlier this month — the switch will go ahead, and is slated to be completed by the end of April.

Qwant has faced further uncomfortable press scrutiny on its home turf in recent months, with additional reports in French media suggesting the business has been facing a revenue crunch — after its privacy-respecting search engine generated lower than expected revenues last year.

On this Leandri told us Qwant’s issue boils down to a lack of ad inventory, saying it will be Ghinozzi’s job to tackle that by making sure it can monetize more of the current impressions it’s generating — such as by focusing on serving more ads against shopping-related searches, while continuing to preserve its core privacy/non-tracking promise to users.

The business was focused last year on putting in place search engine infrastructure to prepare for scaling user growth in Europe, he suggested — meaning it was spending less time on monetizing user searches.

“We started to refocus on the monetization in November and December,” he said. “So we have lost some months in terms of monetization… Now we have started to accelerate our monetization phase and we need now to make it even better in shopping, for example.”

Leandri claims Qwant has already seen “a very good ramp up”, after turning its attention back to monetization these past two months — but says beefing up ad inventory including by signing up more ad partners and serving its own ads will now be “the focus of the company”.

“For example today on 100 queries we were sometime during the year at 20 ads, just 20% of coverage,” he told us, noting that some ‘iPhone 11’ searches done via Qwant haven’t resulted in any ads being served to users in recent times. “We need to go to 30%-40%… We need to make it better on the shopping queries, brining new customers. We need to do all these things.

“Right now we have signed with Havas and Publicis in France for Europe but we need to ad more partners and start adding our own ads, our own shopping ads, our own technology for ads. That’s the new focus.”

Additionally, there have also been a number of reports in French media that have alleged HR problems within Qwant. Articles — such as this one by Next Inpact — have reported at length on claims by some employees that Leandri’s management style created a toxic workplace culture in which staff were subject to verbal abuse, threats and bullying.

Qwant disputes these reports but it’s notable that the co-founder is stepping back from an operation role at a time when both he and the business are facing questions over a wave of negative domestic press, and with investors also being asked to plough in fresh financing as a key strategy customer (the French government) is scrutinizing the product and the business.

The health of workplace culture at technology companies and high pressure startups has come in for increasing attention in recent years, as workplace expectations have shifted with the generations and digital technologies have encouraged greater openness and provided outlets for people who feel unfairly treated to make their grievances more widely known.

Major scandals in the tech industry in recent years include Uber being publicly accused of having a sexist and bullying workplace culture by a former engineer — and, more recently, travel startup Away whose CEO stepped down in December after a bombshell report in the press exposing a toxic culture.

Mobileye expands its robotaxi footprint with a new deal in South Korea

Mobileye announced Tuesday an agreement to test and eventually deploy a robotaxi service in Daegu City, South Korea, the latest example of the company’s strategy to expand beyond its traditional business of supplying automakers with computer vision technology that power advanced driver assistance systems.

Under the agreement, which was announced at CES 2020, Mobileye will integrate its self-driving system — a kit that includes visual perception, sensor fusion, its REM mapping system, software algorithms and its driving policy that will “drive” the cars — to enable a driverless mobility-as-a-service operation in South Korea. This system’s driving policy, or the decision-making of the car, is influenced by “Responsibility Sensitive Safety,” or RSS, a mathematical model introduced in 2017 by Mobileye in a white paper.

Mobileye, a subsidiary of Intel, has long dominated a specific niche in the automotive world as a developer of computer vision sensor systems that help prevent collisions. The company generated nearly $1 billion in sales from this business and its tech made it into 17.5 million new cars in 2019, Amnon Shashua, Mobileye’s president and CEO and Intel senior vice president, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

But in recent years, the company has also turned its attention and resources to mapping as well as developing the full self-driving stack to support higher levels of automated driving. Mobileye’s REM mapping system essentially crowdsources data by tapping into the millions of vehicles equipped with its tech to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems.

In 2018, the company expanded its focus beyond being a mere supplier and towards operating robotaxi services. Intel and Mobileye began testing self-driving cars in Jerusalem in May 2018. Since then, the company has racked up agreements, first with Volkswagen and Champion Motors. The companies formed a joint venture called New Mobility in Israel with a plan to  self-driving ride-hailing service there.

Mobileye then made an agreement with RATP in partnership with the city of Paris to bring robotaxis to France. The company also partnered with Chinese electric car startup Nio in late 2019 to develop autonomous vehicles that consumers can buy. Under the agreement, Nio will supply vehicles to Mobileye for China and other markets.

Mobileye also announced Tuesday that China’s SAIC will use its REM mapping technology to map China for Level 2+ — a newer industry term that is meant to cover higher levels of automated driving that still require a human driver to be in the loop. Level 2+ systems often cover highway autonomy, which means the system handles driving on highways in certain conditions but requires the human driver to take over.

Reddit links UK-US trade talk leak to Russian influence campaign

Reddit has linked account activity involving the leak and amplification of sensitive UK-US trade talks on its platform during the ongoing UK election campaign to a suspected Russian political influence operation.

Or, to put it more plainly, the social network suspects that Russian operatives are behind the leak of sensitive trade data — likely with the intention of impacting the UK’s General Election campaign.

The country goes to the polls next week, on December 12.

The UK has been politically deadlocked since mid 2016 over how to implement the result of the referendum to leave the European Union . The minority Conservative government has struggled to negotiate a brexit deal that parliament backs. Another hung parliament or minority government would likely result in continued uncertainty.

In a post discussing the “Suspected campaign from Russia”, Reddit writes:

We were recently made aware of a post on Reddit that included leaked documents from the UK. We investigated this account and the accounts connected to it, and today we believe this was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.

Earlier this year Facebook discovered a Russian campaign on its platform, which was further analyzed by the Atlantic Council and dubbed “Secondary Infektion.” Suspect accounts on Reddit were recently reported to us, along with indicators from law enforcement, and we were able to confirm that they did indeed show a pattern of coordination. We were then able to use these accounts to identify additional suspect accounts that were part of the campaign on Reddit. This group provides us with important attribution for the recent posting of the leaked UK documents, as well as insights into how adversaries are adapting their tactics.

Reddit says that an account, called gregoratior, originally posted the leaked trade talks document. Later a second account, ostermaxnn, reposted it. The platform also found a “pocket of accounts” that worked together to manipulate votes on the original post in an attempt to amplify it. Though fairly fruitlessly, as it turned out; the leak gained little attention on Reddit, per the company.

As a result of the investigation Reddit says it has banned 1 subreddit and 61 accounts — under policies against vote manipulation and misuse of its platform.

The story doesn’t end there, though, because whoever was behind the trade talk leak appears to have resorted to additional tactics to draw attention to it — including emailing campaign groups and political activists directly.

This activity did bear fruit this month when the opposition Labour party got hold of the leak and made it into a major campaign issue, claiming the 451-page document shows the Conservative party, led by Boris Johnson, is plotting to sell off the country’s free-at-the-point-of-use National Health Service (NHS) to US private health insurance firms and drug companies.

Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, showed a heavily redacted version of the document during a TV leaders debate earlier this month, later calling a press conference to reveal a fully un-redacted version of the data — arguing the document proves the NHS is in grave danger if the Conservatives are re-elected.

Johnson has denied Labour’s accusation that the NHS will be carved up as the price of a Trump trade deal. But the leaked document itself is genuine.

It details preliminary meetings between UK and US trade negotiators, which took place between July 2017 and July 2019, in which discussion of the NHS does take place, in addition to other issues such as food standards.

Although the document does not confirm what position the UK might seek to adopt in any future trade talks with the US.

The source of the heavily redacted version of the document appears to be a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by campaigning organisation, Global Justice Now — which told Vice it made an FOI request to the UK’s Department for International Trade around 18 months ago.

The group said it was subsequently emailed a fully unredacted version of the document by an unknown source which also appears to have sent the data directly to the Labour party. So while the influence operation looks to have originated on Reddit, the agents behind it seem to have resorted to more direct means of data dissemination in order for the leak to gain the required attention to become an election-influencing issue.

Experts in online influence operations had already suggested similarities between the trade talks leak and an earlier Russian operation, dubbed Secondary Infektion, which involved the leak of fake documents on multiple online platforms. Facebook identified and took down that operation in May.

In a report analysing the most recent leak, social network mapping and analysis firm Graphika says the key question is how the trade document came to be disseminated online a few weeks before the election.

“The mysterious [Reddit] user seemingly originated the leak of a diplomatic document by posting it around online, just six weeks before the UK elections. This raises the question of how the user got hold of the document in the first place,” it writes. “This is the single most pressing question that arises from this report.”

Graphika’s analysis concludes that the manner of leaking and amplifying the trade talks data “closely resembles” the known Russian information operation, Secondary Infektion.

“The similarities to Secondary Infektion are not enough to provide conclusive attribution but are too close to be simply a coincidence. They could indicate a return of the actors behind Secondary Infektion or a sophisticated attempt by unknown actors to mimic it,” it adds.

Internet-enabled Russian influence operations that feature hacking and strategically timed data dumps of confidential/sensitive information, as well as the seeding and amplification of political disinformation which is intended to polarize, confuse and/or disengage voters, have become a regular feature of Western elections in recent years.

The most high profile example of Russian election interference remains the 2016 hack of documents and emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and Democratic National Committee — which went on to be confirmed by US investigators as an operation by Russia’s GRU intelligence agency.

In 2017 emails were also leaked from French president Emmanuel Macron’s campaign shortly before his election — although with apparently minimal impact in that case. (Attribution is also less clear-cut.)

Russian activity targeting UK elections and referendums remains a matter of intense interest and investigation — and had been raised publicly as a concern by former prime minister, Theresa May, in 2017.

Although her government failed to act on recommendations to strengthen UK election and data laws to respond to the risks posed by Internet-enabled interference. She also did nothing to investigate questions over the extent of foreign interference in the 2016 brexit referendum.

May was finally unseated by the ongoing political turmoil around brexit this summer, when Johnson took over as prime minister. But he has also turned a wilfully blind eye to the risks around foreign election interference — while fully availing himself of data-fuelled digital campaign methods whose ethics have been questioned by multiple UK oversight bodies.

A report into Russian interference in UK politics which was compiled by the UK’s intelligence and security parliamentary committee — and had been due to be published ahead of the general election — was also personally blocked from publication by the prime minister.

Voters won’t now get to see that information until after the election. Or, well, barring another strategic leak…

European parliament’s NationBuilder contract under investigation by data regulator

Europe’s lead data regulator has issued its first ever sanction of an EU institution — taking enforcement action against the European parliament over its use of US-based digital campaign company, NationBuilder, to process citizens’ voter data ahead of the spring elections.

NationBuilder is a veteran of the digital campaign space — indeed, we first covered the company back in 2011— which has become nearly ubiquitous for digital campaigns in some markets.

But in recent years European privacy regulators have raised questions over whether all its data processing activities comply with regional data protection rules, responding to growing concern around election integrity and data-fuelled online manipulation of voters.

The European parliament had used NationBuilder as a data processor for a public engagement campaign to promote voting in the spring election, which was run via a website called thistimeimvoting.eu.

The website collected personal data from more than 329,000 people interested in the EU election campaign — data that was processed on behalf of the parliament by NationBuilder.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which started an investigation in February 2019, acting on its own initiative — and “taking into account previous controversy surrounding this company” as its press release puts it — found the parliament had contravened regulations governing how EU institutions can use personal data related to the selection and approval of sub-processors used by NationBuilder.

The sub-processors in question are not named. (We’ve asked for more details.)

The parliament received a second reprimand from the EDPS after it failed to publish a compliant Privacy Policy for the thistimeimvoting website within the deadline set by the EDPS. Although the regulator says it acted in line with its recommendations in the case of both sanctions.

The EDPS also has an ongoing investigation into whether the Parliament’s use of the voter mobilization website, and related processing operations of personal data, were in accordance with rules applicable to EU institutions (as set out in Regulation (EU) 2018/1725).

The enforcement actions had not been made public until a hearing earlier this week — when assistant data protection supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, mentioned the matter during a Q&A session in front of MEPs.

He referred to the investigation as “one of the most important cases we did this year”, without naming the data processor. “Parliament was not able to create the real auditing actions at the processor,” he told MEPs. “Neither control the way the contract has been done.”

“Fortunately nothing bad happened with the data but we had to make this contract terminated the data being erased,” he added.

When TechCrunch asked the EDPS for more details about this case on Tuesday a spokesperson told us the matter is “still ongoing” and “being finalized” and that it would communicate about it soon.

Today’s press release looks to be the upshot.

Provided canned commentary in the release Wiewiórowski writes:

The EU parliamentary elections came in the wake of a series of electoral controversies, both within the EU Member States and abroad, which centred on the the threat posed by online manipulation. Strong data protection rules are essential for democracy, especially in the digital age. They help to foster trust in our institutions and the democratic process, through promoting the responsible use of personal data and respect for individual rights. With this in mind, starting in February 2019, the EDPS acted proactively and decisively in the interest of all individuals in the EU to ensure that the European Parliament upholds the highest of standards when collecting and using personal data. It has been encouraging to see a good level of cooperation developing between the EDPS and the European Parliament over the course of this investigation.

One question that arises is why no firmer sanction has been issued to the European parliament — beyond a (now public) reprimand, some nine months after the investigation began.

Another question is why the matter was not more transparently communicated to EU citizens.

The EDPS’ PR emphasizes that its actions “are not limited to reprimands”, without explaining why the two enforcements thus far didn’t merit tougher action. (At the time of writing the EDPS had not responded to questions about why no fines have so far been issued.)

There may be more to come, though.

The regulator says it will “continue to check the parliament’s data protection processes” — revealing that the European Parliament has finished informing individuals of a revised intention to retain personal data collected by the thistimeimvoting website until 2024.

“The outcome of these checks could lead to additional findings,” it warns, adding that it intends to finalise the investigation by the end of this year.

Asked about the case, a spokeswoman for the European parliament told us that the thistimeimvoting campaign had been intended to motivate EU citizens to participate in the democratic process, and that it used a mix of digital tools and traditional campaigning techniques in order to try to reach as many potential voters as possible. 

She said NationBuilder had been used as a customer relations management platform to support staying in touch with potential voters — via an offer to interested citizens to sign up to receive information from the parliament about the elections (including events and general info).

Subscribers were also asked about their interests — which allowed the parliament to send personalized information to people who had signed up.

Some of the regulatory concerns around NationBuilder have centered on how it allows campaigns to match data held in their databases (from people who have signed up) with social media data that’s publicly available, such as an unlocked Twitter account or public Facebook profile.

TechCrunch understands the European parliament was not using this feature.

In 2017 in France, after an intervention by the national data watchdog, NationBuilder suspended the data matching tool in the market.

The same feature has attracted attention from the UK’s Information Commissioner — which warned last year that political parties should be providing a privacy notice to individuals whose data is collected from public sources such as social media and matched. Yet aren’t.

“The ICO is concerned about political parties using this functionality without adequate information being provided to the people affected,” the ICO said in the report, while stopping short of ordering a ban on the use of the matching feature.

Its investigation confirmed that up to 200 political parties or campaign groups used NationBuilder during the 2017 UK general election.

Fertility startup Mojo wants to take the trial and error out of IVF

Fertility tech startup Mojo is coming out of stealth to announce a €1.7 million (~$1.8M) seed round of funding led by Nordic seed fund Inventure. Also participating are Doberman and Privilege Ventures (an investor in Ava), plus a number of angel investors including Josefin Landgard (founder and ex-CEO of Kry) and Hampus Jakobsson (partner at BlueYard, BA in Clue & Kind.app).

Mojo’s mission, says co-founder and CEO Mohamed Taha, is to make access to fertility treatment more affordable and accessible by using AI and robotics technology to assist in sperm and egg quality analysis, selection and fertilization to reduce costs for clinics. Only by reducing clinics’ costs will the price fall for couples, he suggests.

“What the AI does in our technology stack from now until our roadmap is completed, product wise, is to look at sperm, look at eggs, look at data and ensure that the woman or the couple get precise treatment or the precise embryo that yields healthy baby,” he tells TechCrunch. “The role of robotics is to ensure that the manipulations/procedures are done precisely and at reduced time compared to nowadays, and also accurately.”

The idea for the business came to Taha after he was misdiagnosed with a kidney condition while still a student. His doctor suggested freezing his sperm as a precaution against deterioration in case he wanted to father a child in the future, so he started having regular sperm tests. “I was super annoyed with one particular fact,” he says of this. “Every time I do a sperm test I get a different result.”

After speaking to doctors the consensus view of male fertility he heard was “I shouldn’t care about my fertility — worst case scenario all that they need from me is one sperm”. He was told it would be his future partner who would be put on IVF to “take the treatment for me”. Doctors also told him there was little research into male fertility, and therefore into sperm quality — such as which sperm might yield a healthy baby or could result in a miscarriage. And after learning about what IVF entailed, Taha says it struck him as a “tough” deal for the woman.

“It’s completely blackbox,” he says of male fertility. “I also learned that in terms of IVF or ART [assisted reproductive technologies] everything, pretty much, is done manually. And everything, pretty much, also is done at random — you select a random sperm, they fertilize it with a random egg. Hopefully the technician who’s doing it manually knows his or her job. And in the end there’s going to be an embryo that will be implanted.”

He says he was also struck by the fact the ‘trial and error’ process only works 25% of the time in high end laboratories, yet can prospective parents between €40,000-€100,000 for each round of treatment. “This is where the idea of the company came from,” he adds. Mojo’s expectation for their technology is that it will be able to increase IVF success rates to 75% by 2030.

The team started work in 2016 as a weekend project during their PhDs. Taha initially trained as an electrical engineer before going on to do a PhD in nanotechnology, investigating new and affordable materials for use as biosensors. It was the microscopes and robotic arms that he and his co-founders, Fanny Chesa, Tobias Boecker, Daniel Thomas, were using in the labs to examine nanoparticles and select specific particles for insertion into other media that led them to think why not adapt this type of technology for use in fertility clinics — as an alternative to purely manual selection and fertilization.

“We just completely automate everything to ensure that the procedure is done faster, better and at the same time more reliably,” Taha says of the concept for Mojo. “No randomness. Understand the good from the bad.”

That — at least — is the theory. To be clear, they don’t yet have their proposition robustly proved out nor productized at this stage. Their intended first product, called Mojo Pro, is still pending certification as a medical device in the EU, for example. But the plan, should everything go to plan, is to get it to market next summer, starting in the UK.

This product, a combination of microscopy hardware and AI software, will be sold to fertility clinics (under a subscription model) to offer an analysis service consisting of a sperm count and quality check — as a first service for couples to determine whether or not the man has a fertility problem.

Initially, Mojo’s computer vision analysis system is focused on sperm counts, automating what Taha says is currently a manual process, as well as assessing some basic quality signals — such as the speed and morphology of the sperm. For example, a sperm with two heads or two tails would be an easy initial judgement call to weed out as “bad”, he suggests.

“The first product is to look at the sperm and say if this man experiences infertility or not. So we have a smart microscopy — built custom in-house. And this is where the element of the robotics comes in,” he explains. “At the same time we put on it an AI that looks at a moving sperm sample. Then, through looking at this, the system on Mojo Pro will tell us what is the sperm count, what is the sperm mobility (how fast they move) and what is the predominant shape of the sperm.

“The second part is the selection of the sperm [i.e. if the sample is needed for IVF]. Now we ensure that good sperm is being selected. This microscopy will look at the same and visually will guide the embryologist to pick the good sperm — that’s highlighted around, for example, by a green box. Good sperm have green boxes around them, bad sperm have red boxes around them so they can pick up through their current techniques the sperm that are highlighted green.”

Mojo

Based on internal testing of Mojo Pro the system has achieved 97% of the accuracy of a manual sperm count so far, per Taha, who says further optimization is planned.

Though he admits there’s no standardization of sperm counts in the fertility industry — which means such comparative metrics offer limited utility, given the lack of robust benchmarks.

“The way we are going with this is we’re really choosing the best of the best practitioners and we are just comparing our work against them for now,” is the claim. (Mojo’s lab partner for developing the product is TDL.)

“We will try to introduce new standards for ourselves,” he adds.

The current research focus is: “What are the visuals to make sure the sperm is good or bad; how to actually measure the sperm sample, the sperm count; in terms of morphology… how we can incorporate a protocol that can be the gold standard of computer vision or AI looking at sperm?”

The wider goal for the business is to understand much more about the role that individual sperm and eggs play in yielding a healthy (or otherwise) embryo and baby.

Taha says the team’s ultimate goal is “automating the fertilization process”, again with the help of applied AI and robotics (and likely also incorporating genetic testing to screen for diseases).

He points out that in many markets couples are choosing to conceive later in life. The big vision, therefore, is to develop new assisted reproductive technologies that can support older couples to conceive healthy babies.

“Generally speaking we leave our fertility to chance — which is sex… So there’s a little bit of randomness in the process. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad — it’s how the body functions. But when you hit later ages, 30 or 40, we face biological deficiencies which means the quality of the eggs are not good any more, the quality of the sperm might not be good any more, if fertilization happens with old gametes… you are not sure there is a healthy baby. So we need technology to play a role here.

“Imagine a couple at the age of 40 who want to conceive a baby ten, twelve years from now. What happens if this couple have the possibility of the sperm of the man to be shipped somewhere, the egg of the woman to be shipped somewhere and they get fertilized using high end technology, and they get informed once the embryo is ready to be implanted. This is where we believe the consumer game will be in the future,” he says.

“We envisage ourselves going from just working with clinics in the coming ten years… making our AI and our robotics really flawless at manipulation, and then we are envisaging of having as consumer-facing way where we ensure people have healthy babies. Not necessarily this will be a clinic but it will be somehow where fertilization will happen in our facilities.”

“I’m not speaking about super humans or designer babies,” he adds. “I’m speaking about ensuring at a later stage of the conception journey to have a healthy baby. And this is where we see ART can actually be the way to procreate at later stages in order to ensure that the baby is healthy then there should be new technologies that just give you a healthy baby — and not mess up with your body.”

Of course this is pure concept right now. And Taja concedes that Mojo doesn’t even have data to determine “good” sperm from “bad” — beyond some basic signifiers.

But once samples start flowing via customers of the first product they expect to be able to start gathering data (with permission) to support further research into the role played by individual sperm and eggs in reproduction — looking at the whole journey from sperm and egg selection through to embryo and baby.

Though getting permission for all elements of the research they hope to do may be one potential barrier.

“Once the first module is in the market we will be collecting data,” he says. “And this data that we’ll be collecting will go and be associated with the live births or the treatment outcome. And with that we’ll understand more and more what is a good sperm, what is a bad sperm.

“But we need to start from somewhere. And this somewhere right now what we’re relying on is the knowledge that good practitioners have in the field.”

Taha says he and his co-founders actively started building the company in January 2018, taking in some angel investment, along with government grants from France and the EU’s Horizon 2020 research pot.

They’ve been building the startup out of Lyon, France but the commercial team will shortly be moving to the UK ahead of launching Mojo Pro.

In the short term the hope is to attract clinics to adopt the Mojo Pro subscription service as a way for them to serve more customers, while potentially helping couples reduce the number of IVF cycles they have to go. Longer term the bet is that changing lifestyles will only see demand for data-fuelled technology-assisted reproduction grow.

“Now we help streamline laboratory processes in order to help the 180M people who have fertility problems have access to fertility at an affordable price and reliable manner but also we have an eye on the future — what happens when genetic testing… [plays] an important role in the procreation and people will opt for this,” he adds.

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 starts shipping

Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced the second generation of its HoloLens augmented reality visor. Today, the $3,500 HoloLens 2 is going on sale in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, the same countries where it was previously available for pre-order.

Ahead of the launch, I got to spend some time with the latest model, after a brief demo in Barcelona earlier this year. Users will immediately notice the larger field of view, which still doesn’t cover your full field of view, but offers a far better experience compared to the first version (where you often felt like you were looking at the virtual objects through a stamp-sized window).

The team also greatly enhanced the overall feel of wearing the device. It’s not light, at 1.3 pounds, but with the front visor that flips up and the new mounting system that is far more comfortable.

In regular use, existing users will also immediately notice the new gestures for opening up the Start menu (this is Windows 10, after all). Instead of a ‘bloom’ gesture, which often resulted in false positives, you now simply tap on the palm of your hand, where a Microsoft logo now appears when you look at it.

Eye tracking, too, has been greatly improved and works well, even over large distances, and the new machine learning model also does a far better job at tracking all of your fingers. All of this is powered by a lot of custom hardware, including Microsoft’s second-generation ‘holographic processing unit.’

Microsoft has also enhanced some of the cloud tools it built for HoloLens, including Azure Spatial Anchors that allow for persistent holograms in a given space that anybody else who is using a holographic app can then see in the same spot.

Taken together, all of the changes result in a more comfortable and smarter device, with reduced latencies when you look at the various objects around you and interact with them.

Duffel raises $30M led by Index Ventures to disintermediate legacy travel platforms

Huge travel platforms that run airline booking systems like Sabre and Amadeus were invented eons ago and are so large and cumbersome that innovating with them is no easy feat. In the same way that challenger banks have come along to re-invent the banking software Starck, UK startup Duffel has done the same in the travel market, linking up airlines directly with travel agents with a 21st Century platform.

Today it’s announced a $30m Series B funding round from investors Index Ventures, and they were joined by existing investors Benchmark Capital and Blossom Capital . Its airline partners already include American Airlines, British Airways, Lufthansa Group, Aegean Airlines, Vueling, and Iberia.

Duffel will use the new funds to hire more engineers and increase its broader team. It is focusing on expanding in North America and Europe, with its first customers drawn from the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany and Spain.

Duffel enables travel agencies to plug in directly to airlines’ reservation systems via an API so that they can pull real-time flight offers, make bookings, access live seat availability, and buy extra services. This means new digital and mobile app-based travel agencies – Duffel’s target market – can bypass the long lead times and high costs associated with the legacy flight booking systems. They are then able to see live seat availability from some of the world’s biggest airlines, as well as additional offers on in-flight meals or luggage allocations.

Steve Domin, co-founder and CEO of Duffel, said: “A new breed of online agencies want to access reservation systems quickly and seamlessly. By reinventing the underwiring between online agents and airlines we can transform the world of travel booking and reduce barriers to entry for innovative new companies that are offering travelers a whole new way of creating a holiday or trip.”

In the same way that banking systems have been opened up by deregulation, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) created a new industry standard, known as New Distribution Capability (NDC), which transformed the way air products are retailed through the use of modern XML technology. The problem was, the legacy platforms didn’t take much interest. Duffel has obviously come along to take advantage of that.

Jan Hammer, partner at Index Ventures, said: “We are incredibly impressed by the Duffel team, who we have supported since the days of their seed funding. There is an opportunity here to transform the booking experience for travelers and ease many of the pain points in the industry. From the launch of budget airlines to sharing economy businesses like Airbnb, travel has changed and Duffel will provide the tools, built from the ground up, that make the next wave of innovation possible.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Domin said: “Historically it’s been very hard to sell travel products to agencies. Integrations are hard. There is too much complexity. We are bundling it all into a very simple API and 2 hours later you can have it running on a site or a mobile app.”

“We are connecting directly to airlines’ reservation systems. If you go on a site that uses Duffel, we will forward – to the airline – the right search request, and the airline generates the offer in real-time.”

“Airlines were trying to modernize their booking systems with Amadeus and Sabre but they have not moved quickly on adapting to what the airlines wanted. When the IATA came up with its new XML platform, no-one wanted to use it. So we did.”

Is Duffel a threat to the legacy platforms? “Potentially,” he says, “but I don’t think they see it that way. They don’t see the benefit of engineering and developer experience. In a way, I hope we will be a threat but I don’t think we are right now.”

He said Duffel has future plans to expand to other products like trains and hotels.

Waymo and Renault to explore autonomous mobility route in Paris region

Waymo and Renault are working with the Paris region to explore the possibility of establishing an autonomous transportation route between Charles de Gaulle airport and La Défense, a neighborhood just outside of Paris city limits that plays host to a large number of businesses and skyscrapers, including a large shopping center. This is part of the deal that Renault and Nissan signed with Waymo earlier this year, to work together on potential autonomous vehicle services in both Japan and France.

This route in particular is being explored as a lead-up project to potentially be ready in time for the Paris Olympic Games, which are taking in place in Summer 2024. The goal is to offer a convenient way for people living in the Île-de-France area where Paris is located to get around, while also providing additional transportation options for tourists and international visitors. The region is committing €100 million (around $110 million) to developing autonomous vehicle infrastructure in the area to serve this purpose, across a number of different projects.

“France is a recognized global mobility leader, and we look forward to working with the Ile-de-France Region and our partner Groupe Renault to explore deploying the Waymo Driver on the critical business route stretching from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport to La Défense in Paris,” said Waymo’s Adam Frost, Chief Automotive Programs and Partnerships Officer, in an emailed statement.

Defined routes designed to meet a specific need, especially in time for showcase events like the Olympics, seems to be a likely way that Waymo and others focused on the deployment of autonomous services will work in terms of pilot deployments, since it’s a perfect blend of demand, regulatory exemption and motivation and city/partner support.