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Harvard's Ben Edelman, Web Sheriff, May Have a Conflict or Two

An Internet sleuth moves markets and works for hire
Harvard's Ben Edelman, Web Sheriff, May Have a Conflict or Two
Photograph by Alex Washburn/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis; Illustration by Sanjida Rashid

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 University sophomore, he earned $400 an hour as an expert witness, testifying for the NFL in a lawsuit against unauthorized online broadcasters. In his senior year, the American Civil Liberties Union enlisted him at $300 an hour to testify in a case challenging the government’s use of website-blocking filters in libraries. “The Internet is what we make of it,” he says. “We can shape it through diligence by exposing the folks who are making it less good than it ought to be.”

Edelman, now 33 and in his seventh year on the faculty of Harvard Business School, writes papers on subjects including the scarcity of Web addresses and prides himself on calling out bad actors online, whether it’s the government or the likes of Google and Facebook. “It’s the Wild West out there, and Ben is the sheriff,” says Alvin Roth, a Nobel-winning economist and Edelman’s mentor. Edelman also contracts with companies such as Microsoft for some of his research, and those who disagree with the findings he makes public sometimes complain that he doesn’t fully disclose those relationships.