In “The Players Ball,” David Kushner’s lively re-enactment of the battle to control the web address sex.com, the internet gets the creepy, disturbing origin story that it deserves.
Some may prefer to trace the internet’s rise to the wizards who stayed up late connecting computer centers across the globe or to the bookish Tim Berners-Lee weaving the World Wide Web from his Swiss lab, but the unsavory characters at the heart of “The Players Ball” are a better fit for today. Stephen Michael Cohen and Gary Kremen spent the better part of the 1990s fighting for custody of sex.com, which raked in as much as $5 million a year in profits by serving as a hub for porn ads and subscriptions. In the process, they proved that with the right stimulus, crowds would flock online and spend freely.“As in the American Frontier of the 1800s, the early settlers of the net fought to stake their claim and make their millions,” Kushner writes at the start of the book. “They established the systems that defined the world to come. But none of this would have been possible without the fuel that made the internet what it is today, love and sex.” In other words, once there was money to be made from porn, the trappings of civilization were certain to follow — infrastructure investments, legal protections and the like.This comparison between the early internet and the Wild West — mythologized as virgin territory waiting to be conquered by visionary men — is hardly unique to Kushner. One of the first important digital rights groups, for example, named itself the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But Kushner, who is the author of several books including a history of the video game Grand Theft Auto, leans especially heavily on the tropes of the western, building his story around a white hat (Kremen) and black hat (Cohen).Undoubtedly, Cohen, who spent three and a half years in prison for fraud, is the rougher character. The mind boggles to read about his brazen theft of the sex.com domain. Cohen’s only possible rationale was straight out of the Wild West — he saw a way to extract more value from sex.com than its ostensible owner. Cohen faked a letter saying Kremen had sold him the domain. Incredibly, Kremen then had to spend six years and $2 million in legal fees to get a court to restore his ownership. When Kremen won back sex.com, including an order that Cohen return its profits, his Silicon Valley lawyer said the court had sent a message that “the internet is not a lawless wasteland.”Credit Still, try as Kushner might, he cannot turn Kremen into Cohen’s antithesis. In fact, the two are presented as cut from the same cloth in Kushner’s reductive narration. Each is said to be emotionally stunted by an impossible-to-satisfy Jewish mother. Eager to prove these mothers wrong, each turned repeatedly to sex to make a fortune, and yet somehow the sense of disappointment remained.Kremen is shown being fired early on from the powerhouse business he co-founded, Match.com, for his abuse of the staff. He spirals into a meth habit, awkwardly packs heat for an encounter with Cohen, and after he wins back sex.com is shown strutting at the Players Ball, the annual internet porn celebration, which gives the title to the book.More to the point, we now know there were no white hats in the conquest of the West, only purveyors of genocide and continent-scale land theft. The “civilizing” of the internet brought none of that horror, of course, but it similarly imposed a world of white, male dominance. In one of the stranger lines in “The Players Ball,” Kushner describes Kremen after learning that he had (temporarily) lost control of sex.com: “Looking at it now felt like seeing someone had moved into his house and was sleeping with his girlfriend, if only he had one.”Not to say that Cohen was right to steal sex.com, but why exactly was it Kremen’s property in the first place? He acquired it at no cost because he was first to claim it in a “land grab” along with two dozen other basic web addresses, like jobs.com. Did the internet have to be designed to be plundered?“The Players Ball” moves quickly. The settings include a Tijuana strip club Cohen uses to hide his sex.com earnings; Kremen’s drug den in the San Francisco neighborhood Dogpatch; the swingers’ club Cohen ran in a tony part of Orange County, Calif. You may even gain relative sympathy for these two digital entrepreneurs who embraced their manipulative, gutter-dwelling natures, rather than hiding behind a pledge “to make the world a better place.”Before the rise of surveillance capitalism, they thrilled at the tens of millions of dollars they had conjured from sex.com. Poor fools. They had no idea where the real money was hidden.Noam Cohen is the author of “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball” and writes a column for Wired.THE PLAYERS BALL A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise By David Kushner 256 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 13 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Sex.com