Rebel with a Cause: Elliot Noss at NamesCon 2017

NamesCon founder Richard Lau sat down with Tucows Inc. CEO Elliot Noss to talk about setting up and running an internet company that’s built to last. It’s been a long, strange trip for Noss, who keeps coming back to the intersection of fairness and connectivity. 

Noss said, “I was an abject failure until I was 35 years old!” He spent his life waiting for the internet to come along… and when it did, it was slow and painful to use. “I knew as soon as I touched it that it was going to be what it is [today].” 

Internet, Evolved

“At that time if you could configure an email address, you had godlike powers!” He joined Tucows when it was a download site for freeware and shareware, and that introduced him to the intricacies of domain names. In the nineties, he got into the pre-ICANN push for new TLDs. 

Today, Tucows is a large registrar, as well as operating a mobile-phone service provider called Tingl which is the result of Noss wanting a mobile company that was customer friendly. Now Ting is working on a fibre-to-home product, to bring high-speed internet to whomever wants it. “We live in a time where the internet is clearly the biggest agent for change the world has ever seen,” said Noss, but until now it hasn’t had its own purpose-built infrastructure. It mostly runs on old copper wires. That’s starting to change, but only very recently. 

There are 20,000 cities and towns in the United States, said Noss, so competition with Google isn’t something that keeps him up at night: “There aren’t a lot of people doing this.” Cities are approaching Ting on their own, asking to be… fiber-ized. (Initiatives like Gigcity exist and are gathering steam, but nationwide fiber is decades away.)

Just a week ago, Tucows also bought eNom from Rightside. This adds add 14.5 million domains under management and 28,000 active resellers to Tucows’ pastures. Combining these two entities will be done piece by piece, said Noss, with backwards compatibility in mind.

Raise a Little Hell

Though it’s the first real exercise in global governance, Ross referred to himself as an ICANN troublemaker. Meanwhile, Tucows was described by the US White House as “notorious”. That was because it was a registrar that wouldn’t take down names just because a government demanded it. “Groups like the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation]  and others came to our defense,” said Noss.

Decentralized tools, distributed identity, and user-controlled encryption: now people are turning their intellects and talents toward solving some of these problems, said Noss. He discovered internet law in his student days, and noted one truism: “The legal system just moves too slow.” He doesn’t worry too much about individual pieces of legislation, because they tend to be backwards-looking in an industry where everything moves forward very quickly. However, he notes, there are real casualties of poorly-written or badly-implemented internet law. Keep running forward, he advised anyone in the internet industry.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to be in one place, working for one company, for twenty years now,” said Noss. He said he values long-term relationships with employees and customers alike. He said that it takes a long time to figure out what you’re doing at a job.

For example, Noss recounted his failure in trying to get Tucows into music and movie distribution. When they launched the first wholesale blog hosting platform in 2003, he was sure it would be a success… but it was not to be. Blogging blew up, sure, he said; but “nobody ever paid for it.”

His foray into surname domaining also didn’t work out as expected, but there was a silver lining: the name for Ting came out of that portfolio.

“We’re all always right,” said Noss, “it’s just a matter of when.”