Interview, On Campus

Five Questions with Professor Ben Edelman

Nathan Bruschi, Editor-in-Chief

If you could condense the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into a single man, you’d get HBS Associate Professor Ben Edelman.

A member of the Negotiation, Organization & Markets faculty, Edelman studies online marketplaces and internet advertisers, notably by coding computer software to uncover inefficiencies, fraud, and discrimination therein. As an attorney with a J.D. from Harvard Law School (in addition to an A.B., A.M. and Ph.D., all from Harvard), Edelman does not hesitate to threaten legal action against bad actors to protect consumers and assure compliance. With past targets such as American Airlines, Apple, and AirBnB, no company has proven to be too mighty for the activist-academic, nor have many proven too small to escape his attention. Indeed Edelman gained notoriety in MBA admissions circles for threatening legal action against two Boston-based restaurants that failed to honor Groupon vouchers or overcharged customers by as little as $4. In what he claims is penance for the ensuing media debacle, Edelman now teaches Leadership and Corporate Accountability in the RC.

Edelman has also been tireless in his attempts at improving Harvard itself. As an undergrad at Harvard College, Edelman approached University President Larry Summers with a plan to promote healthier social interactions at the school by funding alcohol-free daytime rock concerts – a plan Summers approved on the spot. As an Associate Professor at HBS, Edelman blew the whistle on the HBS administration for incorrectly claiming copyrights on the cases written by professors without their legal consent (they now have to sign over such rights). Putting his coding skills to use, he personally programmed the third generation of the scribe’s note-taking system (HBS is now on version four), created an algorithm that enables visually-impaired faculty to call on students through voting buttons instead of hand-raising, and even built a standing computer set-up that allows him to chart out the classroom discussion on three projectors instead of Aldrich’s famous chalk boards.

  1. How did you first get interested in consumer protection and online advertising?

For years, friends and family have brought me their most broken computers, infected with viruses and malware and worse.  It’s not exactly a pleasure to fix these problems, but I was usually able to.  Yet I was left wondering who was polluting the web with such garbage.

So you can imagine my delight when a series of online publishers and advertisers hired me to get to the bottom of malware that was scamming them – in one early instance, adware looking for banners on among other sites, taking out the publisher’s ads, and inserting new ads instead.  That makes good money for the adware company, but it’s an outrage for the publisher.  As if the online news business challenges weren’t brutal enough already!

One thing led to another, and there were quite a few years where cleaning up this aspect of online abuse was not just my main hobby, but also a source of academic learnings and, ultimately, personal pride.

  1. What do you wish consumers would do to protect themselves from some of the frauds that you’ve uncovered?

It’s easy to blame consumers for not reading carefully or not thinking twice before they click.  But I tend not to want to go down that road – ultimately it’s blaming the victim.

Instead, I’d like to see more tough enforcement of existing laws against online miscreants.  Unfortunately there are many factors standing in the way.  Pursuing online schemes requires technical expertise – figuring out whodunit and how — which is inevitably in short supply.  And so many schemes cross jurisdictional boundaries.  If a scammer in Panama swindles consumers in the US (an actual problem I faced a few years ago), can US law enforcement do much about it?  Many perpetrators are savvy enough not to target victims in their own countries: Examining malware distributed by some Russians, I noticed that the program began by checking the default language of the user’s computer, and exempting from its attack any computer set to run in Russian.  We shouldn’t be surprised if Russian or Panamanian taxpayers aren’t interested in spending money to protect US consumers.

  1. A lot of your research is built on data gleaned from robots, including some that I understand reside on servers in a closet in your home. What inspired you to leverage technology in this way?

The basic insight is that the web is too big to inspect by hand.  That much is noncontroversial.  But I was early in building crawler software that intentionally sees the web as infected users do.  For example, I could install twenty malware apps onto five test PCs, then go to a portfolio of web sites to check what ads appear.  You’d be surprised what might happen: On a computer infected in that way, browsing to Expedia might yield a popup for Priceline, or some sneaky invisible window claiming it was the adware that had referred me to Expedia even when I went there on my own.  With software doing this work, I could keep an eye on the malware and prepare dossiers of their practices – with minimal ongoing time investment, important because I had quite a few other commitments at the same time.

  1. As a lawyer, you’ve been able to connect your academic research on fraud with legal action against the companies involved. What are some of your favorite cases that you’ve been a part of?

My first case tried to protect Yahoo advertisers from overcharges – tricky methods by which Yahoo charged advertisers for low-quality placements like malware and typosquatting, when advertisers thought they were buying high-quality sponsored search.

More recently, I brought a pair of cases, against Apple and Facebook, as to purchases made by kids (anyone under 18 at the time of purchase).  We argued that kids have the right to change their mind, under law, but both companies had said all sales were final and had denied refunds.  If this happened to you (or a friend or cousin) at Facebook, it’s not too late to write in and claim a refund.

  1. Those outside of HBS may know you from media coverage critical of your legal confrontations with local Boston small businesses. What do you think those critical stories get wrong about you and how has the attention changed the way you approach your work?

It was an amazing experience – thousands of people who probably would support much of what I work on, but who learned about me from a single incident in which, to be sure, my tone was out of line.  These days I try to be more careful that my approach reflects my true purposes and conveys what I’m trying to achieve.

Nathan Bruschi (HBS ’18)
 is a joint degree student at Harvard Kennedy School and spent much of his childhood in national parks chasing merit badges as a Boy Scout. Prior to HBS, he served in the United States Navy and at the White House. He spends his spare time begrudgingly at Shad Fitness Center, inexplicably at Felipe’s Taqueria, and undeservedly at Mike’s Pastry. Follow him @NathanBruschi.

April 19, 2017
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