Adbuster

Harvard student's hobby keeps adware vendors on the ropes.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. - Symantec this month is suing so it can continue to call Hotbar.com's software "adware" without running the risk of being sued itself.

Ben EdelmanThe legal complaint relies in part on an analysis of Hotbar.com software written by Ben Edelman, a 25-year-old Harvard University economics Ph.D. student. He already has graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and runs the most respected independent adware site on the Internet.

The site, benedelman.org , regularly analyzes adware and exposes companies that sneak the stuff onto PCs without giving users sufficient warning. In his most recent post, Edelman contends that Google maintains relationships with adware vendors despite Google's policy against doing business with companies that fail to adequately seek consent before their software installs itself.

His work "is just totally invaluable," says Richard Stiennon, head of threat research for Webroot Software, a spyware-cleaning company. " It pulls the cloak off people's eyes. All you hear is claims from some of these vendors that they're good guys and don't do bad things and he turns around and says, 'What about this site where you're installed by a drive-by download?'"


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Based in part on Edelman's research, some adware companies have changed their policies, Stiennon says, and "that's a great thing if you can say that in any walk of life."

Edelman spends 15 to 20 hours a week researching and writing, time carved out of days otherwise occupied studying for the bar exam, working on his Ph.D. thesis, running 8 miles, taking road trips to present papers, sitting on expert panels and riding the world's best rollercoasters. "The job is right in here," he says gesturing to a room in his street-level apartment in Cambridge, "so the commute is short. I enjoy it. It's like a hobby rather than a job."

But it is a job in that he gets paid consulting fees, something that he relied on to pay his way through undergraduate and law school. He's consulted with companies that have been threatened by spyware makers to document the bad practices of the spyware vendors. "There are lots of threats from spyware companies to those who detect, remove, write about, criticize and otherwise threaten their business. Gator sued PC Pitstop for calling them spyware," he says.

He says he's had job offers from anti-spyware companies but turned them down. "I value my independence, my ability to write what I want," he says.

He would seem to be a target of litigation, too, but nobody has come after him. "I get some letters, legal papers, but never lawsuits. No one has ever sued me," he says.

He's been a consultant since junior high school, when he set up PCs for friends in his hometown of Washington, D.C.

"It used to be quite a scene," he says. "You'd order your new Gateway, and the cables would get shaken loose in shipping because they weren't that firmly connected in the first place. You'd get your new computer, turn it on and it wouldn't boot."

Getting those computers to work and training their owners led to more work.

"So that developed into a more serious business ultimately doing networking for small businesses in high school," he says, including a 100-node network for Stand for Children, part of the Childrens' Defense Fund, which his aunt founded. He was 16 and a student at Woodrow Wilson High School when he landed that job.

He had so much business, he carried a pager in high school.

"I had it on buzz, and I had to choose between school and work on any given instance," he says. If the call warranted it, he would respond. "It was a big school. There are a lot of exits."

He took classes at Georgetown University and St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., his junior and senior year because as a sophomore he already had blown through Calculus, the top math course offered at Woodrow Wilson. He sought other schools to take Linear Algebra and Multivariable Calculus.

He graduated in 1998, enrolled at Harvard that fall, and landed a job in Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society as a systems administrator, maintaining servers and clearing printer jams. But professors there quickly learned that the new student had a lot to teach them about the Internet.

Subject matter

As headlines from his Web site show, Ben Edelman’s research affects a wide range of adware and spyware.
“More on Google’s role: Syndicated ads shown through ill-gotten third-party toolbars.” (June 2005)
“Netscape 8’s ‘Trust Rating’ system.” (May 2005)
“Hotbar installs via banner ads at kids sites.” (May 2005)
“Ask Jeeves toolbar installs via banner ads at kids sites.” (May 2005)
“Claria’s misleading installation methods — dope wars.” (April 2005

"They asked the questions, [such as] 'Suppose we change the way .com was organized in such and such a way, what would that do to the ability to register a new Web site quickly?' [They're] a bunch of law professors. How many of them have actually registered a .com name in 1998? Some had, some hadn't, but I had had to deal with it enough times that I knew the answers to those kinds of questions," he says. "So it was helpful to have me around. "

This led him to researching and writing for the Berkman Center's Web site. For instance, he wrote software that sought open proxies in other countries to find out what kind of Internet filtering was going on in places including China, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. This work resulted in clients that hired him so their sites would avoid filters abroad.

"There are ways they can reconfigure their Web sites to trick the blockers and get a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance," Edelman says. "It's like a cat-and-mouse game. The cat usually wins, but your job, working for the mouse, is to keep the mouse alive for as long as possible, not necessarily to keep the mouse alive forever."

He also tabulated how many Web servers with a single IP address could host multiple domain names with the idea of showing that blocking an IP address with the intent of blocking a single spammer's domain is overkill. "Imagine if you got fed up with calls from some telemarketer so you decided to block his area code," Edelman says. "It's so idiotic that no one would ever do such a stupid thing. But as to IP addresses, that was thought of as something maybe you would do."

Some still do, much to Edelman's chagrin.

In 1998 he consulted on a suit against ICraveTV, a Canadian Web site that was Webcasting U.S. television without paying fees. Working for the U.S. stations' attorney, Edelman showed that despite attempts by ICraveTV, the site was not blocking non-Canadians from viewing. ICraveTV contended that Canadian law protected the Webcasting as long as only Canadians watched.

Later, the same law firm hired him to do research for lawsuits it was preparing against Gator, now called Claria, whose software directed pop-up ads to newspaper Web sites.

Adware and spyware is more than an annoyance, he says, they cut down on computer availability and ultimately workers' productivity and therefore affect the economy in general.

"We've created this incredible thing, the Internet, and the ideas and science associated with it," he says. "There are some big power grabs. Who will have the right to show advertising in this medium and in what way? Who will have the right to stop other people from getting what they want in this medium and by what decision making process?

"Can your government stop you? Can someone else's government stop you?"

But before he can focus on these things full-time he has to finish his economics dissertation, the subject of which is still being refined but will include a chapter on auctions for pay-per-click advertising like at Google.

A side effect of his dissertation might come in the form of relief for the subjects of his adware/spyware exposes. He might not have enough time to produce as many stories. "It could slow down a lot," he says. "On the other hand, one has to have hobbies ..."

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