Opinion: Sex.com, a new book by Kieren McCarthy, relates the earliest known example of domain name theft.
In 1995, when the Internet was not yet mainstream, Stephen Michael Cohen stole the sex.com domain from Gary Kremen. Unlike more recent stories of domain theft, the theft of sex.com was not so much about technical matters as interpersonal relations. As a practical matter, the battle over that domain is over, but the fighting goes on because neither Cohen nor Kremen will give up and go away. Guys can be competitive.
Kieren McCarthys book Sex.com, on the epic battle (its epic as Internet battles go) between the two men, is a fun read on many levels. Its a story of the early and growing years of the Internet. Its a story of crime and the shady, dishonest and dishonorable world of con men. Its a great business and legal story. Its got sex, its got drug abuse. The only thing missing is the rock and roll. The book is actually unpublished in the United States, although Amazon.com appears willing to sell it here.
In the early days before the dotcom boom, the business of domain names was completely owned by Network Solutions Inc., under a contract from the federal government. It was about this time that the government decided to establish ICANN, a quasi-public corporation, to do the work, but then and for many years NSI ran things and did so in something of a legal vacuum.
By 1995 Cohen was an experienced con man, always looking for a new, challenging way to use his charm, quick thinking and ability to press on with incredible lies. The actual theft of the domain was accomplished mostly through a fraudulent faxed letter sent by Cohen to NSI and some phone calls.
The letter had a number of errors in it that should have raised red flags at NSI, which also did not confirm the transfer with Kremen. NSI went on to claim in court that they had no obligation to anyone to do anything, that as a domain holder Kremen had no contract with them and no contractual rights, and that if they were held in any way responsible the sky would fall down on the Internet.
Yet at the time it was not clear at all that domain names were property in any sense. In fact, this is still not a totally clear matter, but the law has been moving in the logical direction that domain holders have a property interest in them and the first big movement in the law came from the sex.com case.
Its worth pointing out that NSI did e-mail Kremen at the address he had in his whois record. In one of the great "its a small world" stories of the Internet, Kremen didnt receive the e-mail because at the time his e-mail address had been hijacked by infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick who was using it to hide his identity while committing crimes unrelated to the theft of sex.com. Kremen was a double, early Internet crime victim and didnt know about either.
In fact, partly because of the murky legal status of domain names at the time and partly because of lies told to him and others by Cohen, Kremen didnt realize for some time what had happened. By the time Kremen finally gathered enough resources to sue Cohen (and NSI), Cohen was flush with cash and nerve from his sex.com triumph and some ancillary victories.
Suffice to say Kremen made a lot of money off of that domain. Most of the book relates the stalling tactics, lies and crimes Cohen committed in order to fight the suit. One of these maneuvers, possibly the most outrageous one of all, finally nailed Cohen and sealed his fate.
The two men spent, and continue to spend, impressive money on the battle and its clear the real winners in the story are the lawyers. Even the losing ones made a lot of money off of the cases in this dispute. Theres an element of great white whale to Kremens continued obsession with Cohen, but McCarthy never lets the reader forget who the good guys and bad guys are.
As a predator taking advantage of the good will of others, Stephen Michael Cohen was a trail blazer of the most unfortunate kind on the Internet. One can argue whether he got away with it, but he was probably an inspiration to a large generation of criminals who plague us every day. We may have Kremen and his lawyers to thank for putting the law on the right path, but Cohen accomplished much more.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since,much to his own amazement,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.
He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.
For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.
In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.
Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.