CS Controversy: The Place Pages and Banned Ambassadors

While I warmly welcome you, my fellow Couchsurfing (CS) website user, to share this Summary with other CS users on the CS website, I ask that you please DO NOT copy and paste any of the text, because according to their Terms of Use, if is posted on the CS website, it can become the property of CS. In addition, because that is standard practice among many social media and other companies, please do not copy and paste any of my text onto any other website without getting my written permission FIRST. Instead, whenever you wish to share what I have written, please simply post a link to this blog.

Please note, in order to not violate certain sites’ Terms of Use, I have replaced the “.” with “(dot)” in several website’s URLs to avoid posting hyperlinks.

My summary below was first published on March 10, 2013.

It was updated on March 14, 15, 18, 20 and the updated sections have been marked with those dates.

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BACKGROUND ON COUCHSURFING

Couchsurfing currently has three main entities: (1) a social networking website, (2) the tech start-up company/people that run the website (CSHQ), and (3) and the website’s userbase. The website’s userbase shapes and maintains the CS community and ideology. There is a sizable split in the userbase between (1) people who oppose the recent changes to the website, (2) those who intend to alter how they interact with the website in an effort to adjust to the changes, and (3) those who do not feel significantly impacted by the changes to the website.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

In August 2011, Couchsurfing became a for-profit company. This upset many longtime users who had contributed time, energy, content, and money on behalf of Couchsurfing believing that it was run by a nonprofit and would always be run by a nonprofit. Many users also became concerned that since Couchsurfing was officially a for-profit, that the site and therefore the culture of CS would change in ways that they wouldn’t like and these concerns were heightened when venture capitalists later invested millions of dollars into the company. The thinking among these users is that the website would have to be changed in some radical ways in order for the venture capitalists to make money on their investments. However, there were also users who were either ambivalent or not bothered by the company becoming a for-profit. CS the company has yet to publicly specify how they intend to make money on the website, only announcing that they intend to grow the userbase and that the website will remain free to users.

Then, over the course of 2012, many of the employees who had worked for CS before it officially became a for-profit were fired. Now, the high up employees are people experienced in running tech start-ups and do not appear to be previous members of Couchsurfing, as evidenced by their public biographies on the website. In October 10, 2012, Couchsurfing the company updated its Terms of Use.

ROLL OUT OF THE PLACE PAGE

In early December of 2012, the company suddenly instituted the Place Page, which included radical and deeply unpopular changes to the Chicago group’s pages and those of cities around the world. In addition, the Chicago group’s previous message board system was eliminated. The new Place Page confirmed the fears of the longtime users who had objected to CS becoming a for-profit and it increased fears that the company would seek to expand the userbase at the expense of the culture of CS and the safety of users. Many members believe that changes like the weakened verification system and the increased ability of new users to create multiple profiles threatens the safety of users. In addition, posts to the message board were now set to public by default and could now be viewed by anyone on the Internet, including non-users. Some users believe these changes were motivated by the company’s desire to advertise the website to the general public. In addition, the Place Page contains numerous technical errors.

JVH (Justin Velander Holt), a prominent and well-known Chicago Ambassador, quickly brought back the previous message board system as part of a new group called the “Chicago(land) – The (NEW!) Official CS Chicago Group!!!” along with the content that went along with it, thereby resurrecting it. This content, the majority of which was authored by JVH via community consensus, detailed important subjects such as how to write personalized couch requests, what should be posted on the message board, and how to create events.

Over the course of the next three months, JVH also sent thousands of individual emails in an effort to keep new members updated and informed about the website’s changes and the existence of the resurrected group, two pre-existing groups, and the events calendar. He strongly encouraged people to join the resurrected group and to boycott the new Place Page. As a result, Chicago now had two groups and people started to post on both message boards. Despite his efforts, the Place Page continued to be used by new users, because that’s what the website directed them to do when they joined Couchsurfing.

The Place Page message board began to contain spam and this greatly annoyed many of the website’s experienced users. There was also a marked increase in posts made by people with incomplete profiles and this heightened the concern among both longtime and new users that people who intended to use the site solely to find free places to stay and not for cultural exchange, would corrode the culture and ideology of Couchsurfing. Some further believed that this would ultimately lead to the culture’s and website’s demise.

In response, JVH, and other users around the world, began heavily petitioning the company to make changes to the Place Page so that it would be easier to navigate and security features would be restored or created to make the website safer. JVH, with the help of others in the CS Chicago community, created a detailed PowerPoint presentation with diagrams of how the Place Page could be improved. It was well-received by Chicago CSers. In addition, on February 15th, Don Shine, a prominent CS Berlin Ambassador for the past 4.5 years, created a browser plug-in for Firefox and Chrome, called CS Navigation Links, in attempt to make it easier for users to navigate the new Place Page. It was promoted on the CS Chicago message board and on Facebook, and was again well-received. (Don Shine is also the creator of a popular fully automated calendar system for users in Berlin, which for the past three years has been making it easier for them to keep track of events happening in Berlin.)

COUCHSURFING BANS JVH AND DON SHINE/DION SHIELDS

In response to the implementation of the Place Page, JVH also heavily petitioned the company to improve the website and his exchanges with several of its employees ultimately became very heated. On his blog, “Kings of Couchsurfing,” JVH reposted one of the Ambassador (Public) Group threads, under the post titled “CouchSurfing ‘Cares’” In this thread, he repeatedly accused several of the company’s employees of incompetently fulfilling their job functions, called the Place Page an “utter failure”, and on February 23rd, dissatisfied with the responses he was getting from Sam Houston, CS Program/Community Manager, he demanded to speak to his manager.

On February 25th, JVH again said he wanted to speak to Sam Houston’s manager and on February 26th, JVH received an email from Colleen Sollars, the company’s Community Outreach Manager, which later he reposted on his blog. According to his blog post, “Termination of Membership,” the full text of the email was “Justin Holt, Per the recommendation of Couchsurfing’s Trust & Safety Team, this letter shall serve as notice that we have revoked your Couchsurfing membership. In order to use Couchsurfing, members agree to comply with the Community Guidelines. In addition, you are in violation of 4.2(c), (e) and (f) of our Terms of Use policy in which you agree not to: use the Services in any manner that could interfere with, disrupt, negatively affect or inhibit other members from fully enjoying the Services[;] stalk, intimidate, threaten or otherwise harass or cause discomfort to any other member of our Services[;] collect or store any information about any other member other than as permitted on our Services. The decision is final, and we will not respond to future emails regarding this matter. Please note that all safety matters are handled with absolute confidentiality.” The emailed letter was signed “Couchsurfing.” The revocation of JVH’s membership meant that his profile was deleted along with every post and reference he had created with that profile. He was now effectively banned from using the CS website.

In reference to the banning of JVH, days later, on March 1st, Don Shine, a prominent CS Berlin Ambassador for the past 4.5 years, started a thread on the now private Ambassadors group. According to his website, Don’s starting post read: “A number of difficult questions have gone unanswered here in the past and many have gone unanswered. I think it is time we brought all those questions into one thread. With the recent deletion of an ambassadors profile there is a concern that those who ask difficult questions will have their profile removed. Bully tactics do not intimidate me. I invite anyone who has a difficult question that they would like asked to send it to me [directly through Facebook] and I will post it in this thread for you.” Among the questions he politely asked was “Why has this group been made private and blocked from couchsurfing members seeing what is being posted here?” That same afternoon, Don was banned from the website in the same manner as JVH, thereby deleting his posts as well. It’s been reported that neither JVH nor Don received any warning from the company before their accounts were terminated. These developments created the belief that the company was censoring its members.

In response to his deletion, Don Shine, using the name Dion Shields on Facebook, created a public Facebook event page titled “Censorship on Couchsurfing” accusing the company of censorship and encouraging users to start a Twitter campaign. (The FB event now has about 600 “going” or “maybe” and another 2,200 “invited.”) More users became afraid that they too would be censored by the company by having their profiles and posts deleted. Around this time, a third user in Berlin said she was banned without explanation. It is also possible that other users were banned when the Place Pages were put in place.

Soon after his banning, the company sent Don Shine a legal notice and accused him of violating the company’s copyright when he backed up the Zendesk Support Forum after it was taken down by the company. (The Zendesk Support Forum was removed by the company in late February 2013.) Don believes that the Zendesk Support Forum was deleted in order to hide users’ negative comments about the CS website. In addition, Don Shine and his supporters believe that the company officially gave him and other users to do what Don did, and cite a written statement from Sam Houston, the company’s Project Manager, which announced that “… most posts/threads will be lost. If you do not wish to lose this content, please screenshot or backup the content that you wish to save.” At the same time, the company also appears to be accusing Don of violating “member privacy” and has said on its blog that while members are not and have not been removed for “dissenting opinion” that the company does “… remove members who attempt to violate other members’ privacy (by publicly posting user data, for example).” (This blog post is titled “Member Removal: Is Couchsurfing Censoring the Community by Removing Outspoken Members?” and is authored by CS’s CEO, Tony Espinoza. It appears to be a direct response to the outcry against the banning of JVH and Don. As of now, this post and the one it references appear to be the company’s only public acknowledgement of the censorship controversy.) Don, on the Facebook “Censorship on Couchsurfing” event page denies that he ever reposted or stole user data.

On March 7, Don/Dion posted on the FB “Censorship on Couchsurfing” event page that CS lawyers had sent him a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notice. He says the notice reads:  “The infringing use by http://csberlin(dot)com/ can be found at this URL:http://cs-support.csberlin(dot)com/support.couchsurfing(dot)org/home.html and is a direct reproduction of our support page referenced above. We request that the entire subdomain located at http://cs-support.csberlin(dot)com/ be removed as it is infringing Couchsurfing International’s rights in its entirety.” As part of the same FB post, Don wrote that he interprets the notice to mean “… they are claiming copyright on the ENTIRE forum not just their logo. This means that they claiming copyright ownership ALL of the user feedback.” (For the corresponding sections in Couchsurfing’s Terms of Use that are effective as of October 12, 2012, please see 4.3 Member Content License and 5. SUMMISSIONS.)

CEO RESPONDS TO ACCUSATIONS OF CENSORSHIP
(Added 3/18/13)

On March 16, CEO Tony Espinoza, in response to a post by a CS ambassador in the Ambassadors Group, posted: “But regarding those two deletions, it just doesn’t make sense. If we were operating like that why would we single out 2 individuals? It’s not like we only have 2 Ambs protesting. The heaviest protestors don’t even appear to be protesting. ;-)”

In addition, he asserts that Don Shine was contacted before he was deleted. Don Shine, however, says he was deleted without warning.

Also, while the poster the CEO the is responding to might have mentioned only Don Shine and JVH being deleted, there are reports on Don Shine/Dion Shields’s Facebook protest page and elsewhere on the CS website that a woman from Berlin was also deleted. It is not clear if she was an ambassador or a regular user or what message(s) she might have received immediately prior to or after her deletion.

AMBASSADORS GROUP CHANGES FROM “PUBLIC” TO “PRIVATE”

Around the time Don Shine was banned, the Ambassadors group was changed from “public” to “private” by the company. This change means that non-Ambassador users could no longer see what was being posted there. In addition, the group’s page lists new guidelines, including the guideline: “Couchsurfing Ambassadors do not actively discourage other Couchsurfing members from continuing to use the Couchsurfing site in their profiles, events, Place Pages, Groups, etc.” Under the list of guidelines, it says “Failure to adhere to these rules can result in the dismissal from the Ambassador Group, as well as the removal of the Ambassador Yellow Flag from your profile. Appropriate Ambassador behavior will be evaluated at the discretion of Couchsurfing staff. If you choose not to abide by the Ambassador Guidelines, we invite you to email …@… to request your Ambassador Flag to be removed.” These changes are viewed by some users as additional evidence of censorship.

Update: As of March 13, the Ambassadors Group was changed from “Private” back to its original designation of “Public” and therefore is visible to users without the “Ambassador” designation. The guidelines detailed in the above paragraph are unchanged.

Update 3/20/13: The CEO continues to respond to directly ambassadors in the public ambassadors group.

BEWELCOME (BW) AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO CS

The banning of JVH and Don Shine; continued perception of censorship and fears of more bannings; and dissatisfaction with the unpopular Place Page drove many users in Chicago and Berlin to create profiles on BeWelcome (BW), an open source website that has a mission similar to Couchsurfing’s and is run by a nonprofit in Europe. However, BeWelcome currently has a very small userbase in the US and worldwide in comparison to Couchsurfing. In addition, some users are concerned that the movement of Couchsurfing users to BeWelcome will further divide the Couchsurfing community, while others believe that it will put pressure on the company to change its policies. Justin has set up a profile on BW and is working to rebuild the CS Chicago community on BW Chicago.

Update 3/14/13: There have been reports of CS users being told by CS the company that they cannot mention BW on their CS profile. CS the company states that Ambassadors cannot mention BW on their profiles, but there does not yet appear to be a public statement regarding CS profiles of non-Ambassadors.

Update 3/18/13: On March 16, CEO Tony Espinoza, in response to a post by a CS ambassador, posted: “The fact that we have allowed profiles to point to BeWelcome should not be taken as an indication that it’s okay. It’s simply not okay. Will we eventually take action on this as a form of commercial interest? Yes, I think it’s likely we will. When that time comes, I will make an announcement here first. Ambs need to decide if they are here to work together and make CS better or if they want to create a new community. We simply can’t have CS Ambassadors conducting BeWelcome’s business on the CS web site.”

ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY (added 3/15/13)
(Made into a separate post titled “CS to Institute New Zero Tolerance Policy” on 3/18/13)

On March 14, CEO Tony Espinoza, in response to a post by a CS ambassador, posted “I believe the single biggest thing we can do to improve safety on CS is to enable every surfer and every host to provide confidential feedback to us directly. In April we will be rolling out such a system. The move to zero tolerance is no joke.” (This post is publicly viewable on the the Ambassadors Group.)

An email from CEO Tony Espinoza to JVH and posted on  JVH’s blog under the title “Zero Tolerance,” also mentions a zero tolerance policy.

It is not yet clear what the new zero tolerance policy would entail. However, some CS users are concerned that such a policy would enable users to anonymously report one another in a malicious manner and that users accused of being safety threats would be unable to share their side of the story and defend themselves against unfounded claims of being a safety threat.

DIVISIONS AMONG USERS

Overall, users are divided into several different, but overlapping groups based on their thoughts about: (1) How relevant they feel the current debate is to them personally, if at all; (2) If they like or dislike the new Place Page and other changes to the CS website; (3) How accurate or inaccurate the accusations of censorship are; (4) Whether or not they intend to continue using the website in its new format; (5) Whether or not they want to create a profile on BeWelcome; (6) Whether or not to boycott CS and only use BeWelcome and/or other non-CS websites; and (7) What changes will happen to the CS website and company in the future.

WHERE THINGS STAND TODAY

The censorship controversy has yet to be resolved and the anti-censorship campaigns on the Couchsurfing (CS) website, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit continue. Employees of the company, including the CEO, have posted responses in these various areas, as well as on the company’s blog. There appears to be very limited involvement of CS communities outside of Chicago and Berlin, though users in both of these cities are attempting to change this.

The company has yet to acknowledge on its blog that there are serious concerns about security flaws in the design of the Place Page and CS website. Users around the world continue to petition the company with suggestions on how to fix the problems. However, the suggestions are frequently met by a company response that the users deem to be wholly unsatisfactory. It is: “Your safety is important to us. You guys are awesome.”

Update 3/18/13: The CEO is posting in the Ambassadors Group in response to Ambassador’s concerns about security flaws and has released some details on how CSHQ will be addressing them. However, the Ambassadors Group is not widely known of and only Ambassadors, who make up a small percentage of active users, can post in it. Therefore, while there are public responses from the CEO, his posts there are unlikely to be seen by the vast majority of CS users and are buried in a thread.

Update 3/20/13: At least two ambassadors have voluntarily given up their ambassador’s flags in protest of the website’s changes, perceived continued censorship, and overall dissatisfaction with CSHQ leadership.

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RESOURCES

JUSTIN VELANDER HOLT (JVH):

His blog, “The Kings of CouchSufing”: http://kingsofcouchsurfing.blogspot.com/

His (now deleted) CS profile, last saved in early December 2012: http://cshq.csberlin(dot)com/jvh/

His reproduction of his conversations with CS employees: http://kingsofcouchsurfing.blogspot.com/2013/02/couchsurfing-cares.html

(Please note, the thread this conversation happened in is the Ambassadors that was Public, but is now Private.)

His reproduction of the “Termination of Membership” email: http://kingsofcouchsurfing.blogspot.com/2013/02/your-couchsurfing-membership.html

PowerPoint proposal of a redesign of the Place Page: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1iG4DPYWjNfbWfu9b–wFcAfF_3yFOeufwylGBWGgb1Y/edit#slide=id.p

DON SHINE/DION SHIELDS:

His “Censorship on Couchsurfing” Facebook event page (public): https://www.facebook.com/events/147008412126669/

His (now deleted) CS profile: http://donshine.csberlin(dot)com/

His creation, CS Navigation Links, the browser plugin for Firefox and Chrome: http://www.csberlin(dot)com/browser-plugin / https://www.facebook.com/CSNavigationLinks

His reproduction of his last CS posts, before he was banned: http://donshine.csberlin(dot)com/dont-ask.html

CS, THE COMPANY:

Blog: http://www.couchsurfing.org/news/

Terms of Use (ToU policy): https://www.couchsurfing.org/terms.html

Community Guidelines: http://www.couchsurfing.org/about/guidelines

Blog post authored by CEO Tony Espinoza denying censorship: http://www.couchsurfing.org/news/cs-organization/member-removal-is-couchsurfing-censoring-the-community-by-removing-outspoken-members/

Zendesk Support Forum: https://support.couchsurfing.org/home

Announcement of the Zendesk Support Forums closure: https://support.couchsurfing.org/entries/23212851-Feedback-Forums-closure-End-of-Feb-2013

(It is this announcement that Don Shine/Dion Shields cites as giving him permission to mirror it.)

Ambassadors (Public, then Private, then public again) Group: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group.html?gid=2125

Ambassadors Group thread titled “Direct Discussion with Tony Espinoza (CEO)”:

https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14262863#post14270267

Link to CEO’s post mentioning the new Zero Tolerance Policy: https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/threads/chicago-illinois-united-states-couchsurfing-ceo-tony-espinoza-has-declared-that-cs-hq-will-soon-be-instituting-a-policy-of-zero-tolerance-re-member-con (Please note: The link was created by a CS user who is NOT the author)

Definition of a CS Ambassador: http://www.couchsurfing.org/Ambassador.html (Please note that CS Ambassadors are volunteers. They are not employees of the company or paid by the company.)

List of employees: http://www.couchsurfing.org/about/couchsurfing-team/

Colleen Sollars, CS Community Outreach Manager’s CS profile: https://www.couchsurfing.org/people/colleen/

Sam Houston, CS Program/Community Manager’s CS profile: http://www.couchsurfing.org/profile.html?id=1149OC5U

Announcement of the Place Pages, authored by Sam Houston: https://support.couchsurfing.org/entries/22546803-Place-Pages-come-to-Couchsurfing

Reviews of CS written by current and former employees: http://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/CouchSurfing-Reviews-E568573.htm

BEWELCOME

BW Chicago Group: http://www.bewelcome.org/groups/365

BW Chicago Facebook Group: http://www.facebook.com/groups/353644114740973

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for the detailed low-down. I have been using CS since 2008 myself, and moved (mostly) over to BW in 2011. However, I understand that CS is a corporation. Thus they can do whatever they like, under local laws, including privacy ones. Removing the recalcitrant users is a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t they? They are a plain for profit entity, don’t forget, and thus must favour the stockholders interests, not the users’.

    So why do their tacticts astonish you?

    Reply
  2. Hi Rick and thank you for your comment. I wanted to wait a few days to see if another reader would respond to you before I responded.

    At this point, my intention with this blog is to provide objective-as-possible information and facts about what is going on, because I have also seen a lot of rumors, misinformation, and general confusion. I think it’s important for people who are still using the CS website to be aware of and understand what it is happening with it and why some people are very upset about the changes.

    Reply

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