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More information on our new Privacy Policy and Terms of Use

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Recently, we announced that we’re updating our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use to bring them up to date with our new services, such as the mobile apps, and US privacy law. Since then, we’ve seen that, of members who have concerns, many of them are centered around the same topics. Privacy is very important to us, and we recognize that policies like these have a lot of information to wade through.

The primary comments and concerns that we’ve received are about our license to use member data. After discussing this with many community members, it’s clear that it’s necessary to provide some more clarity on what the license does, how it’s limited, and how we can and can’t use data.

Our license provides us:

1. The right to use content for our services

The top question by far is about why we have the type of license that we do, as mentioned in our Terms of Use. Licenses are standard legal terms that are needed for a company such as ours to do things like display member content on our website, www.couchsurfing.com, and store it on our servers. Members own and continue to own all of the information they upload to the website. Therefore, in order to display that content to other people (for example, a member profile page), we need permission to do so. That’s what this license accomplishes.

2. The ability to retain data for safety purposes

Although the wording of our license is not uncommon, it differs from some others. The reason for this is that, being a unique type of community, we have different needs from most other websites. For example, it is our policy that members can only have one profile, ever, to be sure that people stand by the reputation they build. When a repeat profile is reported to us, we are only able to verify that information by checking against deleted data. Having the broad member license allows us to do this to support the integrity of our reputation system. This isn’t a need that many websites have.

3. A broad platform to innovate

Another unique aspect of CouchSurfing, which anyone who’s been around for a bit knows all too well, is that we have a backlog of years’ worth of great ideas from the community that we have yet to implement. We’re expanding our team, moving faster, and want to get new things out there. Our plan changes all the time as we assess the community’s interests and our own capabilities. We want to be able to do something as big as rideshare or as small as a hosting calendar — whatever would be the best thing at the time — without needing to go through a new legal process each time.

Our privacy policies, and the legal system they operate within, limit our use of your information to protect your privacy:

That said, it is important to note that this member license does not mean that we can do whatever we want with member information. We are very committed to protecting member privacy, and our stance on user protection and experience has not changed. It’s important to understand that our use of your information is constrained by our Privacy Policy, and also by US privacy law.

Participation in the EU-US Safe Harbor Privacy Principles

We have now also finished the process required to participate in the EU-US Safe Harbor Privacy Principles. This optional step holds us legally responsible to the guiding principles of the European Data Protection Directive. Although it would be impossible for us to take similar steps in every country where we have members, the EU is well known for having very well-developed privacy law. We are applying these principles across the board, even to members in other regions of the world.

Your data is not for sale

As a result of these different layers of compliance and interaction between our policies, it is easy to reach the conclusion that we can use individual data far more freely than we actually a can. A few clarifications on what is and is not legally possible:

  • We have committed in our Privacy Policy not to sell or transfer individual data to advertisers or marketers without first notifying members and allowing them to opt out. Different regulatory agencies in the US and Europe hold us legally responsible for upholding our policy.  We think it would be ethically wrong for us to sell or transfer your data to advertisers or similar commercial interests without your knowledge, which is why we’ve made this commitment.
  • We can’t use your individual data for our own or others’ promotional/marketing without giving you the tools and options to control that. For example, at some points we may want to send you marketing emails. And in the past, we have featured members’ photos on the homepage. For uses like that, which may be considered promotional, we will give you the tools to control that. For any use outside of our services (such as if we decided to advertise CouchSurfing on other websites) we would need your express consent.
  • We can transfer your data to third parties who help us provide our services. For example, if you get verified, we transfer your address to the company that sends our verification postcards. Or if you buy a CouchSurfing T-shirt, you do that using our gear shop partner. When this happens, these third parties have signed agreements to safeguard your data, and not to use it for any other purpose or share it with anyone else.
  • We can share anonymized, amalgamated data with third parties. For example, we’ve worked in the past with researchers who investigated the development of trust amongst strangers; for their work, we shared anonymized information about member behavior.

Designed for transparency

These policies have been in the works for over six months; or, around the time we began developing our mobile apps. The new platforms meant that an update was necessary. Our legal team, working with many advisors, took the opportunity to give both policies a full and detailed evaluation to be sure that we included everything that we should.

It is crucial that these policies be as detailed as possible so that individuals can choose their own comfort level in regards to their online behavior.

At the same time, we recognize that it’s a lot of information to go over and digest. If you have questions, please feel free to contact us.

About Marian Schembari

Marian comes to Couchsurfing via New Zealand via London via New York and has been a traveler since first studying in Spain. When not running social media at Couchsurfing she bakes, blogs, practices yoga and explores San Francisco like a boss.
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