Inside the 'Notorious' Canadian Internet Company Targeted by the US Government

Tucows went from sharing free software in the 90s to pioneering municipal broadband in the 21st century.

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Mar 20 2015, 3:35pm

​For the last two decades, Tucows has tried to remain one of the good guys on the internet. To the US government, however, they're 'notorious.'

Since its start in the 90s, the Canadian company has morphed from a freeware download site to a legitimate mobile carrier. The office of the US Trade Representative also recently listed them as a "notorious market" for illegal goods and accused the company of shielding bad actors online. How did Tucows get here, and will it keep trying to fight the good fight as it grows larger?

Tucows started out sharing free software in the 1993 on its founder's personal website. In 1995, it merged with a Toronto-based internet service provider. Since then, it's risen to prominence as one of the largest domain name registrars in the world, and in 2012 launched a scrappy startup mobile carrier in the US called Ting, which piggybacks on the Sprint network and is lauded by its customers for its transparent, pay-for-what-you-use pricing.

Now, Tucows is going head to head with the biggest telecommunication companies in America by bringing Ting-branded gigabit fiber internet to the municipalities that want it. So far, that's amounted to two networks, one in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one Westminster, Maryland.

Basically, the company has done it all when it comes to the internet business—from software downloads to actual infrastructure—and it's paying off, if its cavernous Toronto warehouse office is any indication.

"The internet is not broken, it is amazingly self-healing"​

When I visited Tucows' headquarters, it was adorned by massive hanging banners displaying the logos of the company's brands. A lot of them say "Ting." As I strolled through the offices, a fresh crop of Ting representatives was being trained to deal with customer complaints, which the company handles on an individual basis. There's no computerized voice asking you to pick from a bevy of numbered options when you call Tucows. Apparently, they have a huge backlog of customer voicemails to get through.

At the end of my office walkabout, I sat down with Tucows CEO Elliot Noss and Graeme Bunton, the company's manager of public policy, in Noss's cozy office. A big, old, shaggy dog lazed about next to Noss in stark contrast to the low-key hustle of the rest of the building.

"We were always very much in that service provider space," Noss said of the company's long and winding history. "We took a lot of what we did in retail spaces, and we just applied it to mobile. For us, there's real commonality across all of those businesses. And underneath all of it is a deep love and respect for the internet."

To be sure, one of the most curious things about Tucows is its apparent commitment to a free and open internet. Tucows's website declares its support for pro-net neutrality organizations like Fight for the Future. The company has also spoken out against mass surveillance, raised money for digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and participated in the EFF's 2014 day of action against mass surveillance. Bunton was an original member of the Toronto-based digital rights think tank Citizen Lab.

"Who are the world's most prolific hackers right now? They are a huge array of cybercriminals, and a huge array of state actors; it's like the political spectrum is a circle and it's bent upon itself," said Noss. "The internet is not broken. It is amazingly self-healing, and what it needs, and what we need, is more openness, more transparency, and more honesty, and not more secrecy and more control."

This ostensible focus on internet freedom hasn't exactly fostered a cozy relationship with US regulators. As previously mentioned, Tucows landed on the US Trade Representative's annual list of notorious markets due to the company's practice of not responding to takedown requests from companies alleging that Tucows registers domains for sites selling illegal goods. This is despite the fact that a domain name registrar has essentially no say in the content of the websites on its roster, Bunton told me.

"We get a ton of spurious complaints," said Bunton. "So, we take a very careful and considerate approach to every complaint we get, and that doesn't make everyone happy all the time."

Tucows has faced legal troubles before. In one notable case, Renner, a Brazilian retailer, filed an internal ICANN dispute against Tucows for buying the domain name renner.com, along with 30,000 others in a wholesale domain sale. Renner claimed that Tucows had purchased the domain name in bad faith—cybersquatting, basically. Tucows responded by taking the issue to open court in Ontario, a case which resulted in a legal first: the judge decided, for jurisdictional reasons, that domain names are personal property in the province and ruled in Tucows' favour.

"When you file a [dispute], you're limited in the amount of evidence you can bring and there's no downside to taking that action," Noss explained. "If you wanted an extremely valuable domain name, and it's worth $200,000 to you, and it costs $5,000 to do a [dispute], then you might as well try your luck. We were trying to take away their lottery ticket to a cheap domain name."


​Outside the Tucows office. Image: Flickr/Roland Tanglao.

At this point, you might be wondering why Tucows, despite being a Canada-based company, hasn't tried its hand at bringing Ting mobile or Ting gigabit fiber internet to Canada. After all, as any Canadian knows, despising our respective telecommunications companies of choice is part of what keeps our country together. We all hate the weather, and we all hate our internet and mobile providers.

For gigabit fiber internet, Noss suggested the reason is cultural. While net neutrality turned into a heated national debate in the US and the role of security agencies in surveilling the populace is a political flashpoint, Canadians appear miserable but comfortable when it comes to these issues despite high prices and low speeds.

"There's effectively no municipal broadband movement in Canada," Noss said. "There were enough opportunities in places that actually wanted it, and that's where we focused our attention. People are pounding on our doors from all over the US. We have not had one inbound request from Canada."

As for mobile, Noss said that the regulations in place regarding the mobile spectrum—frequency bands reserved for cellular use and auctioned off to the highest bidder—don't do enough to allow new carriers to break into the Canadian telecom oligopoly of Rogers, Bell, and Telus.

Although the Canadian government has set caps on the amount of spectrum a single telecom can hold and reserves a certain amount of spectrum for newcomers in auctions, a large number of spectrum licenses still go to the biggest players.

An investigation into the issues surrounding new entrants to the mobile market is currently underway by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and aspiring mobile carriers like Tucows are thirsty to become service providers in Canada. But it could be years before any resulting mandate goes into effect, Noss said.

The other option, Noss said would be to become a mobile virtual network operator, which involves paying a bigger mobile company to access and use its network and then charging customers separate retail rates. In the US, Ting mobile was able to piggyback on the Sprint network at a cost low enough to actually make a profit. Noss said that every major Canadian telecommunications company he's asked has not even offered Tucows a price for sharing their networks.

If Tucows ever gets the break it needs to get a foothold in Canada, Bunton said that the company would continue to be a benevolent actor in a world of terrible corporations who've partnered with security agencies to fork over user data.

"We always do have to obey laws, and sometimes there are limits"

This may indeed be the case, but this is also coming from a private company angling for a slice of a market dominated by big players. At the end of the day, Tucows is playing the same game as its larger competitors. "Trust us, not Comcast," the company seems to say.

Tucows certainly talks the talk, and up until now have walked it, too. But if the company becomes the major player it wants to be one day, it's going to be subject to the pressures faced by bigger companies when the feds come knocking for customer information. Will Tucows be able to hold the line?

"There seems to be something in the DNA of the company that cares about a free and open internet—that's core to the company, and we will hold to that going forward," Bunton said after sighing and reminding me that it's been a long time since he was at Citizen Lab. "I can't imagine being in a world where we're rolling over."

Noss leaned forward in his seat. "The only thing I'd add to that is that we always do have to obey laws, and sometimes there are limits," he said. "Being creative in the way that you deal with those situations is important and often constrained."

Noss said that in five years, he expects Ting mobile and gigabit fiber internet to be the company's bread and butter, completing the transition from software distributor in the 90s to full-on internet service provider in the 21st century. "And," Noss said, "hopefully we will have done a little bit in Canada."

Bunton guffawed.

"I would phrase that differently," he said. "Nothing seems to change in Canada."