In Person: Harvard prof doubles as ‘sheriff’ of unruly Internet
Benjamin Edelman epitomizes a new breed of sleuths for hire, enforcing norms of online behavior.
Family of lawyers: His father, Daniel, is a civil-rights attorney specializing in employment discrimination; his mother, Toby, is a lawyer who focuses on preventing abuse in nursing homes.
Recent work: “Digital Discrimination: The Case of Airbnb.com,” a paper examining whether pictures of landlords on the rental website, intended to build trust, tend to facilitate discrimination based on the landlord’s race.
Source: Bloomberg, Harvard Business School
Benjamin Edelman knew his way around the Internet’s ethical thickets at an early age. He also knew how to make that knowledge pay.
As a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore, he earned $400 an hour as an expert witness for the National Football League against unauthorized Web broadcasting. By his senior year, the American Civil Liberties Union enlisted him, at $300 an hour, to oppose the government’s use of information filters in libraries.
Now on the faculty of Harvard Business School, Edelman epitomizes a new breed of sleuths for hire, enforcing norms of online behavior.
Edelman is “an astonishing scholar of the Internet,” said Alvin Roth, a Nobel-prize winning economist, who was a mentor and colleague at Harvard Business School. “It’s the Wild West out there, and Ben is the sheriff.”
Edelman, a 33-year-old associate professor, mixes scholarship, lucrative consulting and a digital version of the 1960s-style activism of his family, including his aunt, Marian Wright Edelman, the civil-rights and children’s advocate. While he ferrets out misdeeds on the Internet, his multiple roles have put his own work under scrutiny.
“The Internet is what we make of it,” said Edelman, who arrived for an interview at his Ivy League office in jeans and sneakers after commuting by bicycle through Boston’s snowy streets. “We can shape it through diligence, by exposing the folks who are making it less good than it ought to be, like the neighborhood watch, or the busybody neighbor who yells at you when you throw your cigarette butt on the street.”
Unlike bloggers who have long formed a volunteer police force on the Internet, Edelman embarks on paid crusades that raise questions about whether he can remain objective in his academic roles as scholar and teacher.
In a move that elevated his profile in the stock market and prompted a dispute about his financial disclosures, he published a blog on Jan. 28 that accused Internet video and advertising purveyor Blinkx of using hidden software to inflate traffic counts. His posting caused Blinkx shares to fall the most in the company’s history.
Blinkx responded to Edelman’s broadside with a statement saying the company “strongly refutes” his assertions and conclusions. Harvard pressed Edelman to say more about his clients, prompting him to disclose that they included two U.S. investors. Their names still aren’t known.
While taking on some giants, such as Google and Facebook, Edelman has worked for others, including Microsoft. Google has said he’s biased and hasn’t been forthright enough in disclosing that he’s a paid consultant to Microsoft.
Edelman earns more from his outside activities than from his salary as a professor, which isn’t unusual among business-school faculty, he said.
His work has influenced the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and New York Attorney General’s Office, among other regulators, in their crackdown on companies.
“He’s part academic and part cyber sleuth,” said Ken Dreifach, former chief of the Internet bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office, whose prosecutors tracked Edelman’s blog posts as they filed cases against companies using malicious software.
Edelman is expected to come up for tenure, academia’s guarantee of job security, at the end of 2015. While his credentials include a law degree and an economics doctorate, both from Harvard, his attacks on companies are unusual at the business school, an institution better known for case studies celebrating successes.
His outside consulting work has been encouraged by Harvard and is helping make the Internet a better place, said Brian Kenny, Harvard Business School’s chief marketing and communications officer.
The controversy over who pays him shouldn’t overshadow the quality of his work, Edelman said.
“People who read my article thought it was so good that they didn’t want to own shares in this company anymore,” he said of Blinkx. “It must be that people were persuaded by my work and, at this point, the work should stand on its own merits.”
In his office, Edelman sat before four huge computer screens. Trim and intense, he runs seven or eight miles a day and even has instructions on his website about how to jog around airports while traveling.
About twice a month, Edelman talks by phone with investors looking for his input about companies. He has charged $800 an hour, and he doesn’t ask whether they are betting for or against the company, he said.
He said his main outside work, not done for Wall Street, is a kind of automated fraud-detection service for advertisers. Edelman runs 150 computers 24 hours a day at 80 sites in nine countries. The computers look for malicious software, including the kind that makes his clients pay for inflated Web traffic.
His system exposes such tricks as secretly bouncing a consumer around to multiple sites or showing them unsolicited pop-ups.
Edelman has 30 or 40 clients, who pay him each time his computers generate reports for them — about 1,000 times a year. Edelman won’t disclose the fee for each report.
One of his clients, Microsoft’s digital-crimes unit, says his techniques have helped the company combat malicious software and alert law enforcement.
“He’s the Doogie Howser of online investigative work,” said Microsoft’s Richard Boscovich, referring to the fictional TV teenage physician. Boscovich, a former federal prosecutor, is assistant general counsel at the software company’s digital-crimes unit.
Edelman traces his entrepreneurial streak to middle school. He said that, at 13, he wrote a program that helped clients choose the right components when buying Gateway personal computers, whose online offerings came in a bewildering array of configurations. He would have each device shipped to his house, where he would show the clueless how to use it. His fee: $10 an hour.
Fascinated by the Microsoft antitrust trial, he snagged a summer job before attending Harvard at its Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which ultimately led to his work as the NFL and ACLU expert witness.
William Iverson, outside counsel for the NFL, said Edelman helped win a court injunction stopping unauthorized Internet broadcasting of games just a week before the Super Bowl.
At Harvard, Edelman graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and he wrote his senior thesis on how Amazon.com’s recommendations affect book sales. After earning his law degree and economics doctorate, he joined the business-school faculty in 2007. He teaches a popular course called “The Online Economy: Strategy and Entrepreneurship.”
Edelman’s greatest attention has come from fighting “adware” and “spyware” — software planted stealthily on customers’ computers. He looks for companies that use it to generate fake Internet traffic, defrauding advertisers, as well as to generate pop-up ads, some pornographic.
In 2006, after Edelman wrote about Zango, an Internet advertising outfit, the company agreed to pay $3 million to settle an FTC complaint that it used unfair and deceptive methods to put advertising software on consumers’ computers. Blinkx uses Zango’s software, Edelman said in his Jan. 28 blog post that led to the shares’ collapse.
David Vladeck, former director of the FTC’s consumer-protection bureau, said his agency followed Edelman’s work and sought out his advice.
Now a Georgetown University law professor, Vladek groups Edelman with a small cohort of Internet activists and technical experts, including Ashkan Soltani and Stanford University’s Jonathan Mayer, both known for their crusades for consumer privacy.
Edelman said he won’t temper his corporate investigations as his tenure case nears.
“I am who I am,” he said. “I can’t stop being me.”