The Story of Sex.com

 
 
By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2007-07-01
 
 
 
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 The book is actually unpublished in the United States, although Amazon.com appears willing to sell it here.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.

Larry Seltzer thinks that domain theft is still too easy. Click here to read more.

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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