It's difficult now to imagine a time before the Internet. But it was just over a decade ago that people outside the military and academic worlds first heard about this rapidly expanding international network of computers.
Academics loved its ability to share vast amounts of information; governments discovered a remarkable communications device; and the rest of us, well, we used it to go shopping, talk about our lives, and look for sex.
The Internet has given sex or, more accurately, pornography, an enormous new outlet. Web browsers brought top-shelf magazines direct to every computer screen. It wasn't long before they did the same with videos. And then the Net really hit its stride: real-time webcams and instant messaging meant direct interaction with complete strangers. The gap between reality and pornography had been narrowed still further.
Sex on the Net is one of the great dirty secrets of our time. A quarter of all search-engine requests are for pornography, at least a fifth of adults online have accessed a porn site, and there are an estimated 400 million Web pages out there catering for the demand. The adult industry is worth $57 billion worldwide, and the United States – which remains the world centre for pornography – claims $12 billion of it.
The bulk of that industry is based in California, in particular Los Angeles, so it is particularly apt that Stephen Michael Cohen was born in the City of Angels and has spent most of his life living in and around it.
It was also in California, in San Francisco, that the website that for many years was the focal point for the new online sex industry – sex.com – was registered. Gary Kremen was the most unlikely porn baron ever born, a geek businessman with a computer degree. But Kremen recognized way back in 1994 that the domain – given to him entirely free of charge – might become valuable one day. Just how valuable he was to find out when Stephen Cohen stole it from him just prior to the dotcom boom and made it the centre of an enormous international empire. The millions of dollars made by sex.com every month at its peak were reason enough for a fight, but its ownership meant more than just a worldly fortune to both men.
Sex.com had provided Stephen Cohen with the life he'd always dreamed of and helped put to rest his bitter hatred of society. For Gary Kremen, the theft of the domain undermined everything he held dear. But at the same time it presented him with a challenge, and a worthy opponent. Neither man was used to losing, and neither was prepared to back down, even for a second. So the case began to take over their lives, and then started to suck in those of friends, families and employees, and, for a short while, even the US legal system and the Internet itself.
But the Internet domain name sex.com represents far more than just the biggest name in an explosion of worldwide pornography – it became the epicentre of a fight over the main building block of the Internet and how these electronic addresses fit into our society and our legal systems.
The battle for ownership of sex.com is set against the backdrop of an extraordinary period of modern history – the dotcom boom, a digital gold rush where fortunes were made and lost faster than ever before in human history. A seemingly worthless property situated on an invisible computer network, and handed over free of charge, suddenly became worth millions of dollars. Within months, every investor, every pioneer, every chancer, crook, bookmaker, moneylender, brothel owner, legal advisor and snake-oil salesman had descended on the Internet boomtown.
Most forays turned up nothing but fools' gold, but there was never any doubt sex.com was the real thing. And when the fight broke out for its ownership, the result was a dramatic retelling of the ancient tales of what men will do, and are capable of doing, when confronted head on with their most basic desires: sex and power.
Despite its name, it was violence that first drew attention to the fact that the battle for sex.com was much more than a petty argument over an Internet address.
In June 2001 reports started to appear that the former owner of sex.com, Stephen Michael Cohen, was in fear of his life after two bounty hunters had come looking for him at his Tijuana home. A gunfight with the Mexican police had ensued.
The bounty hunters were in pursuit of a $50,000 reward from the new – and, it turns out, original – owner of sex.com, Gary Kremen. Why the reward? Who got shot? What were the Mexican police doing there? Had the adult industry resorted to Mafia-style violence?
Every question produced more questions, and each of those provoked more. Every step along the line, the story became more incredible. Kremen claimed the event never happened. Cohen says he had the evidence that showed it had, and had supplied to the court, but the judge refused to accept it.
Investigating the truth meant stepping into the tornado of truth and fiction circling the two men – a chaotic area where dozens of lawyers, partners, friends and family swirled about.
Bitter disputes are the hardest to unravel. Each actor has a different recollection of the same event and, over time, retelling carves inaccurate details in stone. People behave childishly, viciously, under pressure and later seek to hide it. Accepting errors can become impossible as a matter of personal pride.
But what made this story especially difficult to pin down was the extraordinary gift for obfuscation possessed by Stephen Michael Cohen, a gift that has been behind a great deal of his lifelong success as a con man. His lies are compulsive and brilliant. Even when pinned down, he has an immediate explanation to hand. And then an explanation for why that one also turns out to be false.
Unlike other members of his profession, Cohen has not come clean or sought to relieve his conscience. Finding the truth therefore consists of discarding every other possibility. In many cases, it is only possible to reconstruct a vague sense of what actually happened.
One example of this peculiar reality was to haunt Kremen's case for years. An army of lawyers had carefully dissected every detail, and yet only when the method by which Cohen had stolen the domain became the entire focus of a second court case did one of the smartest lawyers in the United States uncover the truth. Even now, after years of fighting, and four different lawsuits and four different appeals all focused on the theft of sex.com, no one apart from Stephen Cohen really knows exactly how he managed to steal the most valuable domain in the world.
What appears in these pages is what I have managed to piece together from years of extensive research, tens of thousands of pages of court documents, dozens of interviews, and an extended spell in the tornado that surrounds the brutal battle for sex.com.