On the face of it, Kieren McCarthy's Sex.com was a book that could have written itself: a notorious, well-publicised feud over the most valuable domain name in existence, between two charismatic men — one a serial entrepreneur with a weakness for hard drugs (Gary Kremen), the other a gifted con-man with delusions of grandeur (Stephen Cohen). It's a story replete with vicious acrimony, multi-million dollar lawsuits, and rumours of gunfights between bounty hunters in the streets of Tijuana.
Thankfully, McCarthy wasn't content to just bundle together all the articles he's written about Sex.com over the years and slap a cover on the front: the level of detail in his book, and the range of people interviewed, demonstrate that a great deal of painstaking research went into its writing. The result is that Sex.com is the best book on the subject of "internet history" (for that is surely what this story will become) since Where Wizards Stay Up Late, and certainly the best book about the Domain Name system that I've ever read. The narrative is compelling, well-informed and highly readable.
McCarthy is not afraid to tackle the quasi-political implications of the Sex.com story, in particular the stranglehold that the old Network Solutions (now VeriSign) had - and continues to have — over the domain name system, and how some of its then employees treated the suspected hijacking of Sex.com with pure contempt — allegedly, even up to the point of threatening physical violence against an expert witness. We're probably lucky that this book was actually written last year — given his current occupation (as ICANN's general manager of public participation) it seems unlikely that McCarthy would have produced such a no-holds-barred version of events as he has, had it been written during his current employment.
Apart from all the legal to-and-fro, ultimately this is a story about two men — both intelligent, ruthless and driven - and McCarthy does an engaging job of telling this story from both points of view. Ultimately, Cohen is the villain of the piece, but he's no cookie-cutter bad guy, and Kremen is by no means an innocent. This book could easily have been a hatchet-job on Cohen, but McCarthy doesn't make that mistake, and the book is better for it.
A couple of remarkable coincidences are worth mentioning: first, Stephen Cohen attended the Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles at around the same time as Internet pioneers Jon Postel, Vint Cerf and Steve Crocker. Second, one of the reasons that Cohen was sucessful in hijacking Sex.com was that Gary Kremen's registered e-mail address had been broken into by Kevin Mitnick, the notorious hacker who has himself been the subject of several books.
One final remark: Gary Kremen recently sold Sex.com for twelve million dollars, the largest sum ever paid for a domain name. And what are the current owners doing with it? It's parked on a PPC ad page.
By Gavin Brown, Chief Technology Officer for CentralNic