TextNow: Connecting People and Offering a Safe Service
When I was a computer engineering student at the University of Waterloo in Canada in 2009, my friends and I saw the need to democratize communications so everyone at every level of society could connect. It didn’t take long for us to realize we needed to develop an app that enabled people to get a free phone number and be able to text and call for free with it.
Fast forward nearly 15 years to today, millions of people now use TextNow exactly as we designed it: to provide an essential phone service for free to everyone – even those who can’t afford it. TextNow puts you, the customer, in charge: you get free access to talk and text with no strings, then the ability to purchase add-ons such as removing ads and low-cost data plans.
Our service took off because many people could not afford high monthly phone bills, but still needed reliable phone service. We inverted the old business model that allowed telecommunications providers to charge customers steep fees.
- Many use us to stay connected with their families – rising prices of phone service makes it challenging for elderly people to keep in touch with their children and grandchildren who sometimes live in a different state.
- Others use us as a ladder to carry themselves out of a difficult situation. Some lost their jobs, some lost their homes, and many lost hope – and losing the ability to stay connected, on top of that, made that weight unbearable to carry alone. By using TextNow, they were able to take active steps in regaining control of their lives.
- We also have several military personnel on active duty, who use us to stay connected with their families back in the US.
- Some teens get their first mobile phone from their parents and are able to learn and develop their independence without adding to the cost of living and weighing on the family budget.
- The list goes on and on – but the bottom line stays the same. TextNow is helping millions of people stay connected, in whatever way they choose and need.
Over the years, unfortunately, we learned by making phone service free and accessible to all, it comes with unintended consequences. We have found that some users were creating TextNow accounts to engage in fraud, robocalling, swatting and other harmful activities. Swatting, in particular, has become a problem for children, parents, educators, and law enforcement, an important issue as the school year is starting to get under way.
I want to make one thing clear: TextNow does not condone the use of our platform for harassment, fraud or other illegal activity that jeopardizes public safety. Period. Our Trust & Safety team works around the clock to identify and block accounts that engage in malicious activity. We also assist law enforcement by promptly responding to requests for assistance to identify and bring to justice people who engage in these hurtful activities.
However, when serving millions of people of various backgrounds and needs, you cannot solve every challenge with the biggest hammer you can find.
In our continuous work to combat behaviors that go against our terms and conditions, we keep adding and refining safety measures to respond to these growing and evolving threats.
After we removed TextNow from App Stores and Google Play Stores outside of North America and blocked countries like Ethiopia that our data showed was a prominent base for these attacks, we saw an immediate decline in the number of incidents. Given the persistent nature of these bad actors, once a barrier is set in place, a search for workarounds begins – so our team kept iterating and refining our guardrails continuously, with various steps that included, among others:
- Blocking the possibility to create new accounts via our web platform to 100% of new users.
- Blocking the option to access or create new accounts on a device that previously had been flagged for abuse (meant to stop perpetrators who attempt to use the same device again and again).
- Disabling the ability to make calls from a web browser when connected via VPN
As the new school year kicks off, we will stay focused on our efforts to combat bad actors on our platform and seek to expand our work with peers in fighting this industrywide problem. Working together will help us to gain an advantage over bad actors. We are proud of our frequent collaboration with law enforcement and other companies, and we welcome ideas for additional ways we can join forces to combat swatting.
Keep an eye out for more blog posts as we share stories about how TextNow is helping to make phone and text service available to anyone that needs it. In the meantime, you can visit the TextNow support site to view our guide for parents and our safety center, and to obtain additional information about using our service.