Benjamin G. Edelman is all over the Internet today, as the world gawks at his demands for redress over a $4 discrepancy on a Chinese food bill.
But before his dining exploits drew such broad interest, the globetrotting Harvard Business School associate professor was already a familiar character to those in the world of online consumer protection.
Edelman in 2010 uncovered an issue with Facebook that led to an outcry from users and a major overhaul of the social network’s privacy policies.
The discovery concerned a leak that could have allowed advertisers to see phone numbers, addresses, and other information about users who clicked on advertisements.
It was one of several discoveries by Edelman that heightened privacy concerns on the Web, including at Google. He found in 2010 that the company’s popular browser toolbar continued to capture data from a computer even after being disabled by the user.
Edelman is also a handsomely-paid consultant. Bloomberg Businessweek wrote this year that he has drawn $800 an hour to conduct research for investors.
As recently as October, Edelman attracted attention for an article on how Google had gradually eliminated the colored shading that once identified ads in its search results.
But he’s faced questions about how his writings relate to his business. Businessweek wrote that Google said in 2011 that he was biased in his research on that company because he has done work for Microsoft.
Edelman, of Brookline, says his writings are independent of his relationships with clients, and in the recent article on Google he made clear that he had worked with the search giant’s competitors.
“I write on my own — not at the suggestion or request of any client, without approval or payment from any client,” the disclosure said.
Edelman is originally from Washington, D.C., and was raised by two lawyers. His mother has represented senior citizens, and his father has worked on behalf of labor unions. Edelman’s aunt, Marian Wright Edelman, is president of the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund.
Benjamin Edelman’s list of academic credentials is long and deeply tied to Harvard. According to the autobiography posted on his website, he has an undergraduate degree in economics (summa cum laude) from Harvard University, a law degree from Harvard Law School, a master’s degree in statistics from Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and a doctorate from the economics department at Harvard.
On his Twitter account, he described the role he saw for himself with clear brevity, even for Twitter: “Research focus: Fixing the Internet.”
On his website, he lists several clients, including Wells Fargo Bank and newspaper companies including the Washington Post and The New York Times, which formerly owned The Boston Globe.
Edelman also keeps busy on the speakers circuit.
According to his website, he was invited to speak at a conference on online advertising in Toronto in October, then an information security forum in Kuwait Nov. 16. A few days later, he was invited to travel to New Delhi, India, for a discussion on digital business.
While he currently touts his interest in fixing the Internet, Edelman had earlier tried to address a problem related to another communication technology: fax machines.
In 2000, five years before he became a lawyer, he went into small claims court in Cambridge and demanded cash payments from two companies who sent him unsolicited junk faxes.
“I filed two small claims complaints against parties I alleged to have sent me unsolicited commercial faxes’’ in violation of federal law, Edelman wrote on his Massachusetts bar application. “Small claims court found in my favor as to one of the faxes, and found for the defendant in the other.”
He reported that he had won a $1,519 judgment against Homeloan.com, but was unable to collect because the company went bankrupt. National Mortgage Network, the other company, bested Edelman, he disclosed. “Judgement for defendant,’’ he wrote.
Also before he became a lawyer, Edelman joined with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and sued a Seattle software company, demanding that it share what sites it was targeting with its filtering programs.