All We Need is Transparency - CouchSurfing's Dealings with its Membership

By Katarzyna Gajewska

All We Need is Transparency - CouchSurfing's Dealings with its Membership

Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD, is an author and educator. You can contribute to her crowdfunding campaigns to help publishing the feminine utopia “Imagine a Sane Society” or other forthcoming Creative Commons books.

CouchSurfing, a platform that has about 14 million membership, helps peers practice gift economy. Members can give information about themselves on their profiles and be seen by other members. One can offer to host or ask for a place to stay, usually for stays of up to one week but all is decided between a host and a couchsurfer. They send a request to a profile of a host and receive (or not) a response with the details how to find their home. This service would not be possible without the generosity of the hosts. It is a big achievement of online-aided peer production.

CouchSurfing has been around since 2003. In its history, there were several cases of disagreements about how it is run by the core team.

How CouchSurfing started

It started as a movement of many enthusiasts wanting this community to enable hospitality and encounters. The transition to for-profit status in August 2011 was disputed by the community. Many volunteers have been involved in setting up the website. In 2012, CouchSurfing accepted venture capital funding in two rounds, which amounted to $22.6 million dollars. In a blog post from May 20th, 2020, the core team stated that investment money had been mostly spent by the early 2015 and only one percent was left by then.

On May 15th 2020, I received a message from its team informing users that they would impose fees which would enable one to use the website as before. They explained this change as being caused by COVID-19. In effect, many people were left with only a choice of paying or not being able to login in to their profile. For myself, I have not exchanged non-CouchSurfing contact information nor lost it, and this means I will not be able to contact people I met through this platform if they do not pay the fee.

However, there are even more ethical issues at stake with this move. The team has not communicated any numbers regarding the revenue and expenses. Even the blog post entitled “We Hear You” from May 20th, 2020, after a huge rise of criticism, is not sharing information about finances.

CouchSurfing and advertising

In December 2012, CouchSurfing wrote in an online discussion that it would never advertise. On May 14th, 2020, they wrote: “Advertisements were implemented by CouchSurfing in 2014 out of necessity. We feel that this business is at odds with the CouchSurfing ethos. CouchSurfing has never sold member data to third parties which could have generated lucrative advertising revenue.” The company repeated that they had never sold user data and were not going to in their May 20th, 2020 blog post. The problem is that the core team has had transparency issues in the past and this makes it difficult to trust them this time.

I have analyzed their Privacy Policy to find out more.

The explanation of data use from May 2018 as published on the website makes two statements that may imply selling data as a possibility. Data may be used in order to:

  1. “Communicate with you about products, services, offers, promotions, rewards and events and provide other news and information about CouchSurfing and other third parties.”
  2. “Link or combine with other information we get from third parties to help understand your needs and provide you with better service.”

Further below, they state that:

“This information may be used by CouchSurfing and others to, among other things, analyze and track data, determine the popularity of certain content, deliver advertising and content targeted to your interests on our Services and other websites and better understand your online activity.”

They write that the collection of information “does not include personalization, which is the collection and processing of information about your use of this service to subsequently personalize content and/or advertising for you in other contexts, such as websites or apps, over time.” This contradicts another subsection. One needs to de-activate personalization in the Privacy settings to make sure that they will not process the data this way. By default, it is activated, probably counting on the ignorance of the application's users.

Several times, I had to agree to the Privacy Policy as if my preferences had been switched off several times. They provide a list of dozens of vendors and one has the option to agree to their Privacy Policy. I have disallowed them several times and then it appeared that they were set as allowed by default again and again. People who are now locked out from the website cannot revise the Privacy Policy at all. And what if they have disallowed the use of their data with vendors' Privacy Policies, but then somehow it switched to “allowed” by default? They communicated that the users who will not pay the fee are still members, and that their accounts will not be destroyed. However, it is not clear whether during the time of hibernation, the company has altered the right to lock out user data.

The Terms of Use specify that they have copyrights to each user's content: “ If you post Member Content to our Services, you hereby grant us a perpetual (i.e. lasting forever), worldwide, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free and fully sublicensable (i.e. we can grant this right to others) license to use, reproduce, display, perform, adapt, modify, create derivative works from, distribute, have distributed and promote such Member Content in any form, in all media now known or hereinafter created (including in emails or other communications to our members) to administer, operate, develop and otherwise provide the CouchSurfing Services.”

Is this a preparation for some sort of theft?

Analyzing the privacy agreement

I should mention that the entire Privacy setting window has several sections and then this very long list of vendors with links to their Privacy Policies. Some of the policies are not even in English. So one needs to count on users to actually get as curious as possible to open all the subsections.

Let's look at what the users agree upon if they do not open the settings to disallow Privacy Policies by the vendors. Note that one is automatically allowing the entire Privacy Policy of the vendor rather than the agreement they have with CouchSurfing, which is an interesting choice.

Dynamic Tracking is a German provider of marketing. The Privacy Policy is formulated in German. It helps to evaluate which advertising has led to selling their products. They collect view and click data.

Instinctive, a New York-based company, mentions such use of data as “marketing and advertising purposes, to determine which ads perform well, to better match ads and website content to your interests.”

PubMatic, a company present in the US, Europe, and Asia, states that it uses data to “infer End Users’ - likely commercial interests (for example, for sports or travel) based on their activities across websites, mobile apps, and other Digital Properties over time, including to build interest-based advertising segments or audiences, as well as to supplement the information we collect with additional information we receive from third parties, such as third-party advertising segments or audiences, to allow us to customize and more effectively tailor the ads we display to End Users (…).”

Furthermore, it matches data: “Our Publisher Clients and partners may use information that we share with them to establish connections among related devices (such as smartphones, tablets, and computers) for targeted advertising, analytics, and reporting purposes. They may match an End User’s devices if the End User logs into the same online service on multiple devices or web browsers, or if the End User’s devices share similar attributes that support an inference that they are used by the same person or household.“

Ziff Davis LLC, a US company, processes a lot of private information, but CouchSurfing has not been listed as a company to which they serve. It is still interesting what the deal between them and CouchSurfing is.

What will happen to user data?

While the CouchSurfing team has informed users about having lost revenue due to the COVID-19 lockdown, is this opening the door to sell user data? This is probably the most valuable asset they have.

They did not exclude a possibility of transferring data to other parties:

“We will not share information about you with outside parties except as described below or elsewhere in this Privacy Policy: An exception may apply... In connection with, or during negotiations of, any merger, sale of company assets, financing or acquisition of all or a portion of our business to another company.”

I cite the Privacy Policy as I found it on May 19th, 2020.

Is this crisis situation an excuse to sell the enterprise with accumulated data? Running the website does not bring much profit, but data of so many users could be a good deal. Data is the new gold after all. We can imagine an innocent merger with companies providing similar services. For example, a company such as HomeAway (formerly Owners Direct), acquired by Expedia in 2015 for $ 3.9 billion, may be interested in all those data. They already run an Affiliate Marketing program with Commission Junction. They need contact to home managers and tourists. CouchSurfing has about 14 million in membership (please, do not cite me on this as it is one of the numbers on CouchSurfing's website) to provide, and one can trace their travel behavior or the type of accommodation they dispose of. The CouchSurfing community is getting older so they would have access to a lot of data on people who are acquainted with unconventional hospitality, but have more means with time. The question is how much they and the management cost. For a company, which had over $300 million revenue in 2017, one million or two is not a big deal.

It seems like the door is legally open to extract user data.

What if the current “crisis” is just a ruse to sign on a better deal? There is some money to be made from users being afraid that they will lose the opportunity to have such a platform, or needing to build their profile again. Or simply put, they may pay under the pressure of losing data and contacts. Meanwhile, the management may be negotiating another option. Recall that in 2011, the application for non-profit status apparently failed. The co-founder responsible for the process, Daniel Hoffer, was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark Capital, which became one of the investors. Simon Schöpf's article suggests that the application was not very serious.1 Later, the co-founders misled the public about the character of the for-profit implying that the company may have different ethical standards than a C Corporation.

Interestingly, they do not provide any names regarding the team. There have been no updates and we actually can find the name of the CEO, Patrick Dugan, through GlassDoor rather than from the CouchSurfing website. He has been the CEO since late 2015 after the preceding CEO resigned. It has clearly been so many years without any news from the current CEO. Isn't it strange? Do they still remember the backlash against the original co-founders? Do they remember the shaming of the CEO, Tony Spinoza, in 2013?

David Bollier wrote in 2011 about the transition to for-profit by calling it an “inside-job enclosure of the commons.”

“CouchSurfers were not consulted in advance about the site’s change of direction; they simply took for granted the founders’ benevolent supervision. This may have been naïve, but what is the practical alternative? Individual users have little chance of organizing to push a benevolent founder into establishing a more robust form of governance and accountability. But that means they remain vulnerable to future dispossession.”

When will it end?

We do not know when the CouchSurfing affair will end. Another chapter is being written about peer production and how to liberate the collective effort from extractivism. Another round of learning for the movement.

If you want to read about a counter-model to CouchSurfing's way, you may find my article about BeWelcome.org interesting.

1 A footnote in Simon Schöpf's article indicated that: “Some say that CS insiders “refused” to meet IRS rules about charitable organisations for 5 years, or that they “delayed finishing their application proposal” for 5 years to benefit from tax advantages and exploit volunteer labor until the clock ran out. “Most informed people would doubt they pursued charitable status with any vigor. While they may have been willing to accept a charitable status that guaranteed the insiders special status and financial power, the IRS explains in their refusal letter that that was not acceptable.” (Source: personal conversation with a member who has had extensive oral dialogues with Fenton and Espinoza).” in The Commodification of the Couch: A Dialectical Analysis of Hospitality Exchange Platforms, 2015, by Simon Schöpf, in TripleC 13(1), p. 16.

Further analysis of CouchSurfing can be found here:

Building Trust in Electronic to Face Social Network Sites: Case of CouchSurfing.org, 2012, PhD thesis by Tan June-e.

Le couchsurfing, pratique forgeuse d'une communauté? 2012, Master thesis by Julie Zeyer at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Lyon

Things you should know about the problems with the CouchSurfing organization

The Commodification of the Couch: A Dialectical Analysis of Hospitality Exchange Platforms, 2015, an article by Simon Schöpf, in TripleC 13(1).

Creative Commons License: CC BY International 4.0 by Katarzyna Gajewska