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Innovators & Influencers: Academia's Adware Inquisitor

With technical and legal know-how, Edelman is unrelenting in his pursuit of spyware's purveyors
The Internet seems like a bottomless cesspool of spammers, scammers, and predators, but Benjamin Edelman has been doing his best to drain it. His research has armed consumer advocates with the proof needed to press for ethical advertising practices online.

Edelman's investigations into spyware and online advertising have led to litigation and the regulation of deceptive and criminal business practices. It's the kind of work that prompts suspicion among the companies he criticizes.

Edelman: a pesky mix of technical and legal know-how

Edelman: a pesky mix of technical and legal know-how

Photo by Mark Ostow
Keith Smith, CEO of adware company Zango, questions the ulterior motives of spyware fighters. "Most of them, if not all of them, have a direct financial benefit to continue to churn out fear about us and about this space," Smith says.

It's an argument others have made about security vendors, but Edelman doesn't buy it. "This is like saying firemen benefit when there are fires so they must want buildings to burn down," Edelman says. "I just don't think that's true."

Edelman, who already has a law degree from Harvard, is finishing a Ph.D. in economics there. "I could teach advertising. I could teach ethics. I could teach advertising ethics," he muses.

The gadfly was drafted into service by flummoxed family and friends whose PCs had succumbed to spyware. "There was something funny afoot that deserved further study," he says. Edelman credits his success to the fact that analyzing spyware suits his unusual combination of technical, legal, and economic skills.

And that expertise may guarantee more work for Edelman because, despite his efforts, the Internet remains infested with unethical marketers who, as Edelman puts it, "still install without consent, who still track what Web sites you visit, who still send just abusive numbers of ads."

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