Book Review: Sex.com
The struggle for the web's most valuable domain
By Maxwell Cooter, Techworld | Published: 13:00, 30 May 2007
There are two types of computer books: there are the instructional ones, and then there are the ones that are of such general interest that even non-techies will buy them. This is definitely the latter, but that's not to say that there's nothing of interest to techies. It might not give programming hacks or give detailed information as to how to set up security, but that doesn't render this valueless.
Sex.com tells the story of the world's most valuable piece of cyber-real estate: the most coveted domain name on the web. Most people in the industry are vaguely aware that the rights to the domain name were stolen; some people might even recognise the names of Gary Kremen and Stephen Cohen, the protagonists in this drama. What McCarthy does is give far more detail that has ever been given before: this is not just about the scam, it's how the scam was worked and how it finally unravelled.
Why is it relevant? For a start it shows how IT security policies are useless against a serial blagger. Cohen grabbed control of the domain through adroit social manipulation, proving that human weaknesses will bypass any form of computer-based security. Kevin Mitnick has explained how social engineering can crack simple security systems, Cohen showed how similar techniques can be used to by-pass legal procedures too. The way that Cohen went through NSI's bureaucracy should get all execs worrying about their own systems.
That's not to say the book's without faults. Some of the US legal detail could probably have been dispensed with and it's sometimes hard to tell what is a verbatim quote from the actors in the drama and what is McCarthy's own intepretation. There's also far too much repetition: we're told rather too many times that Cohen is a flawed genius, I think we got the message pretty early. There are a couple of minor errors that more rigorous editing might have excised.
Rather astonishingly for a respected IT journalist, McCarthy is a bit vague about the creation of ICANN (even more astonishing given that he now works for them). ICANN wasn't set up in isolation but as a successor to IANA; a body that doesn't warrant a mention in the entire book. There's also only a brief mention of Jon Postel, who was IANA, and whose untimely death led to the overhaul of the whole process. While these background machinations are tangential to the main story, they do provide valuable context.
This is nit-picking though: this is a gripping story, well told. There can't be many books about the computer industry that can be described as page-turners but this is. I should mention as a disclaimer that McCarthy was Techworld's news editor for more than three years, so I might be described as biased (although knowing someone is normally an excuse for a journalist to stick the boot in), but I don't think that this has coloured my appreciation of the way that he has gathered the disparate threads together to tell this tale.
By Kieren McCarthy
Published by Quercus
ISBN 1-905204 66 3