Who Is Ben Edelman, Sheriff of the (Chinese Food) Internet?

Edelman speaking at the 2014 UK Investor Show
Edelman speaking at the 2014 UK Investor Show

Harvard Business School associate professor Ben Edelman’s outrage when presented with what he interpreted as a $4 overcharge by a local Chinese food restaurant isn’t too far removed from his day job. And by day job we mean day jobs.

On Tuesday, boston.com wrote about Edelman’s lengthy email exchange with Ran Duan, who, in addition to managing a hugely successful bar inside one location of his parents’ restaurant Sichuan Garden, also handles customer relations for the operation.

After first asking for a refund, Edelman engaged Duan in an email argument on business practices and Massachusetts law. He went on to claim that The Sichuan Garden in Brookline Village systematically overcharged customers an extra dollar on several menu items, because of what manager Ran Duan said was an out-of-date menu on the restaurant’s website. (Read more about Edelman’s battle with Sichuan Garden here.)

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Threatening a local business owner for a petty overcharge isn’t the best way to win over fans, and the Internet reacted as expected. Which of course only piqued our obsession.

Who is Ben Edelman, really?

PRODIGY

At the tender of age of 13, Edelman was hard at work as a computer consultant, for which he charged $10 an hour, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

“He’s the Doogie Howser of online investigative work,’’ said Richard Boscovich, a Microsoft assistant general counsel and former federal prosecutor.

According to Edelman’s six-page resume dated August 2009, he graduated as the valedictorian of Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Washington, DC in 1998. In 2002, he earned an economics degree – summa cum laude – from Harvard College and a master’s degree in statistics.

By his sophomore year at Harvard, he was charging the NFL $400 an hour to be an expert witness speaking against unauthorized Web broadcasting. And who would blame him — what’s $400/hour to protect $9 billion in annual revenue?

In 2005, he graduated from Harvard Law School. And in 2007, he earned a Ph.D. in economics, also from Harvard.

Edelman currently lives less than half a mile from Sichuan Garden, in a home purchased in 2012 for $1.27 million.

He is 34 years old.

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PROFESSOR

When Edelman isn’t threatening legal action against a local Chinese establishment, he spends his time teaching Harvard Business School students in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit.

This fall, according to Harvard Business School’s website, Edelman taught “The Online Economy: Strategy and Entrepreneurship.’’ The course syllabus lists “Online Restaurant Promotions’’ as a topic, referencing the “challenges of online marketing for services necessarily consumed offline.’’

He also taught “Economics 2056a: Market Design and Electronic Marketplaces.’’

Ratemyprofessors.com includes only one entry for Edelman, posted Tuesday. It reads: “He’s my favorite jerk lawyer!’’

CONSULTANT

Edelman also has a laundry list of top companies that pay him for consulting services, a job that often finds him researching malfeasance in other online companies.

“It’s the Wild West out there, and Ben is the sheriff,’’ Alvin Roth, a Nobel Prize-winning economist told Bloomberg Businessweek in March.

Edelman reiterated Roth at a UK investor conference in April of this year:

“You know I get called the sheriff of the Internet these days. The Internet is too big to have just one sheriff. We are fortunate enough to have many individuals who try to clean up bad practices,’’ Edelman said.

As a sheriff for hire, he gets results. In 2010, Edelman found that Facebook had leaked user names and personal details to advertisers despite claims to the contrary. Facebook quickly updated its code to close the leaks, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Edelman’s questioning of the legality of Sichuan Garden’s mislabled prices — which were quickly fixed by Duan after his complaint — appear to be extensions of this same skill, but at a smaller target. Edelman makes this comparison himself in a statement to Business Insider:

If you look at my other work, e.g. http://www.benedelman.org/airfare-advertising/, you’ll see I’ve been pretty diligent in holding large companies accountable for their false statements of price and other attempts to overcharge passengers. Should all small businesses get a free pass? Some people seem to think so, I wonder if that really makes sense.

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Exposing bad practices seems to run in the family, as he is the nephew of Marian Wright Edelman, a prominent activist for children’s civil rights.

The impact of his research has often reached out of the world of academia and into the public eye, most prominently in a study on race and listings on Airbnb, the online rental marketplace. Edelman and another HBS professor analyzed Airbnb apartment listings to see whether the host’s race impacted a listing’s price. He discovered that non-black hosts charge about 12 percent more to rent their room than black hosts, even holding constant the quality of the room.

They wrote:

“These differences highlight the risk of discrimination in online marketplaces, suggesting an important unintended consequence of a seemingly-routine mechanism for building trust.’’

More than anything, Edelman sweats the details. His tenacity over being overcharged by $4 for Chinese food is probably no surprise to anyone who has sought him out for consulting work. In fact, it’s why they hired him.

CONSULTANT?

In 2011, Edelman claimed that “Google gives much more weight to its own sites and products than is deserved.’’

“We find that Google’s algorithmic search results link to Google’s own services more than three times as often as other search engines link to Google’s services. For selected keywords, biased results advance search engines’ interests at users’ expense.’’

Bing, Edelman, said, offered search results that were more fair and showed less bias:

“Google and Yahoo tend to put their “house brand’’ services first, while Microsoft (Bing) does so much less.’’

In refuting the claims, Google pointed to Edelman’s potential conflict of interest: “Mr. Edelman is a longtime paid consultant for Microsoft, so it’s no surprise that he would construct a highly biased test that his sponsor would pass and that Google would fail.’’

Edelman “admitted that he was on Microsoft’s books,’’ but “denied that this had any influence on his report.’’

In 2014, Edelman alleged – via his own website – that Internet advertising company Blinkx inflated traffic numbers and installed deceptive malware, which caused the company’s stock price to plummet.

Blinkx shot back, accusing Edelman of having a conflict of interest:

“The blog is rife with numerous factual errors and materially misleading information. Since its original publication, the blogger was forced to correct and update the blog and make further disclosures around conflicts of interest that still remain vague and opaque. In addition, we know that the blog was aggressively marketed to the institutional investor and analyst community, and that following its publication, the blogger continued to promulgate his opinions with retail investors. This leads us to question the motivations of both the blogger and the sponsors of his research, and in our opinion may indicate the use of expert network techniques to influence shareholder sentiment and share price.’’

Edelman said the research was done for clients whose names he was “not permitted’’ to reveal.

ONWARD AND UPWARD?

Despite recent attacks to his character on social media, Edelman is not without fans.

His work is frequently cited, and he keeps a detailed public list of those mentions, which it’s safe to presume he updates meticulously.

And he’s a frequent presenter at trade shows, investor conferences, and the like.

On December 5, Barons Media hosted its first Annual Digital Ad Security Summit – “dedicated to the fight against Ad Fraud.’’ The last post on the Digital Ad Security Summit’s Facebook page reads: “Ben Edelman will be our Keynote Speaker.’’ As of Wednesday morning, the post has one “like.’’

He is slated to speak at the UK Investor Show in April 2015.

Whether his whirlwind speaking tour will slow as a result of his attempt to take on deceptive advertising tactics by a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant remains to be seen.

Edelman may be seen as a “schoolyard bully’’ by some, but in his world, that’s as a much a badge of honor as a scarlet letter.

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