|Some or all of this article's listed sources may not be reliable. (May 2015)|
|Type||C corporation |
|Founded||April 2003 (New Hampshire non-profit); January 2004 (launch); May 2011 (Delaware for-profit corporation)|
|Headquarters||San Francisco, CA, United States|
|Key people||Erik Blachford (Chairman of the Board), Matt Cohler, Casey Fenton, Dan Hoffer|
|Industry||Hospitality service, Hospitality exchange, networking|
|Alexa rank||2,999 |
|Current status||The non-profit Couchsurfing organization was formally closed in December 2011.|
Couchsurfing International Inc. is a hospitality exchange and social networking website. The website provides a platform for members to "surf" on couches by staying as a guest at a host's home, host travelers, or join an event.
Couchsurfing International Inc refers to two separate legal entities. The first was founded in 2003 as a non-profit organization, and was liquidated in 2011. Its assets were sold to the private for-profit corporation Better World Through Travel, later renamed Couchsurfing International, Inc., which defines itself as “a mission-driven for-profit corporation”. As of August 2012, the company has raised $22.6 million in investment capital, while reporting no revenue.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Membership and site
- 3 Ownership and management
- 4 History
- 5 Safety and criminal activity
- 6 Controversy
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Couchsurfing is a neologism referring to the practice of moving from one friend's house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space is available, floor or couch, generally staying a few days before moving on to the next house. The term pre-existed the website in vernacular usage; for example, "Couch Surfer" was the title of a song by Bran Van 3000 written in the 90s.
The company, its website, and the general culture of hospitality exchange it is meant to support are all commonly referred to as "couchsurfing". The "c" and "s" are sometimes capitalized, giving "CouchSurfing". Participants frequently refer to themselves as "couchsurfers" or "surfers". "CS" and "CSer" are used as abbreviations.
Membership and site
Registration is free of charge, but payment of an annual fee is a factor in user access to services. CEO Billock envisions increasing the number of services available only to paid members. Members are asked to provide information and photos of themselves and of the accommodation they offer, if any. More information provided by a member, and other members, may affect the chances that someone will ask another member to be their host or guest. Members looking for accommodation can search for hosts using several parameters such as age, location, and gender.
Homestays are consensual between the host and guest, and the duration, nature, and terms of the guest's stay are generally worked out in advance.
As of January 2013, there were over 5.5 million registered profiles at Couchsurfing (all profiles ever created, including duplicate, dormant and deleted profiles). Couchsurfing currently claims it is "a global community of 10 million people in more than 200,000 cities". Founder Casey Fenton stated in 2011 that approximately one-third of the profiles registered at that time were active. As of August 2014, Couchsurfing Incorporated states that 400,000 people log-in over a period of one week. According to information on the Couchsurfing site, since 2011 a significant number of fake membership profiles have been created with the intention of inflating membership statistics. In March 2012, 65% of New York City profiles were intentional fakes. The systematic creation of fraudulent membership profiles has continued through August 2014, with numerous locations across the globe registering rates of 50% or more.
Ownership and management
Couchsurfing International, Inc is a privately owned for-profit corporation, incorporated in 2011 in the State of Delaware by Casey Fenton and Dan Hoffer. In contrast to some published statements, Couchsurfing is not a Benefit Corporation. As a privately held corporation, Couchsurfing chooses to not publish any financial data, nor information about its stockholders, majority or minority. After the corporation purchased the assets of the previous non-profit organization in 2011, according to company press releases, a $7.6 million first-round investment was raised by Benchmark Capital, with the ambition of going public at a future date.
In August 2012, Couchsurfing received an additional $15 million in funding from lead investor General Catalyst Partners, with participation by Menlo Ventures, as well as existing investors Benchmark Capital and Omidyar Network. The additional funding brings the company’s total funding raised to $22.6 million.
After replacing Dan Hoffer, Tony Espinoza stepped down as the chief executive of Couchsurfing in October 2013, amid layoffs constituting 40% of employees. Considerations included an $800,000 monthly expenditure rate, which could be difficult to control, considering revenues. He was replaced by interim CEO Jennifer Billock. In August 2014 she was designated permanent CEO by a renewed Board of Directors.
As of 11 August 2014, Couchsurfing’s current Board of Directors includes: Couchsurfing founders Casey Fenton and Daniel Hoffer, Benchmark General Partner Matt Cohler, General Catalyst Managing Partner Joel Cutler, and Couchsurfing CEO Jennifer Billock. Replacing founder Fenton as Executive Chairman is former travel site Expedia CEO Erik Blachford.
Additional layoffs took place in May 2015, bringing Couchsurfing employment to its lowest level since the for-profit corporation was created.
The Couchsurfing project was conceived by Casey Fenton in 1999, according to Fenton's account. The idea arose after finding an inexpensive flight from Boston to Iceland. Fenton randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking if he could stay. He ultimately received more than 50 offers of accommodation. On the return flight to Boston, he began to develop the ideas that would underpin the Couchsurfing project. He registered couchsurfing.com the same year.
Fenton developed the code intermittently over the next few years. The site was launched with the cooperation of Dan Hoffer, Sebastien Le Tuan, and Leonardo Silveira  as a beta in January 2003, although none of these except Fenton was a member of the original board of directors. The project became a public website in January 2004. Former CEO Hoffer stated that when Couchsurfing first started, he made sure to write up a contract between Fenton and himself that detailed what would happen if CouchSurfing were to ever go for-profit, as he suspected it one day would.
Initial growth of the site was slow. By the end of 2004 the site had just over 6,000 members. In 2005, growth accelerated and by the end of the year, membership stood at just under 45,000. As of October 2011, shortly following its privatization, Couchsurfing had over 3 million active and inactive members (Fenton stated the number of active members was approximately one million) and was the most popular free accommodation site. As of October 2011, the site had an Alexa Global Traffic Rank of 1,729, but by September 2014 had descended to 3,178.
2006 database loss and relaunch
In June 2006, the project experienced a number of computer problems resulting in much of the database being irrevocably lost. Due to the volume of critical data that had been lost, Casey Fenton was of the opinion that the project could not be resurrected. On 29 June 2006, he sent an e-mail to all members: "It is with a heavy heart that I face the truth of this situation. Couchsurfing as we knew it doesn't exist anymore."
Fenton's e-mail was met with vocal opposition to the termination of the project and considerable support for its recreation. A Couchsurfing Collective was underway in Montreal at the time and those in attendance committed to fully recreating the original site, with users to re-enter their profile data. "Couchsurfing 2.0" was announced early in July 2006, with the intent to be operational within 10 days. The initial implementation of Couchsurfing 2.0 actually launched after only four days with the current Couchsurfing slogan "Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch At A Time". Since the site relaunch, the project has received international media coverage.
From 2006 through 2011, development of the website was run in large part by Couchsurfing Collectives: events which may last days or weeks, bringing groups of Couchsurfers together in a chosen city, to develop and improve Couchsurfing. Collectives have taken place in Montreal, Vienna, New Zealand, Rotterdam, Thailand, Alaska, Costa Rica and Istanbul. The collectives ended with the privatisation of Couchsurfing in 2011, given that the use of volunteer labor is forbidden in commercial enterprises by the US federal government.
In August 2011, Couchsurfing announced its change of status to a for-profit corporation. Couchsurfing International Inc refers to two separate legal entities. The first was founded in 2003 as a non-profit organization, and was liquidated in 2011. Its assets were sold to the private for-profit corporation Better World Through Travel, later renamed Couchsurfing International, Inc., which defines itself as “a mission-driven for-profit corporation”. A $7.6 million investment was raised by Benchmark Capital, with the ambition of going public. The site had previously been financed by donations from members and revenue from the voluntary identity verification service. Second and third rounds of investors contributed another $15 million.
The announcement that Couchsurfing had become a for-profit corporation has raised objections from members.
August 2014 security breach
According to the Couchsurfing Community Support Team, on 15 August 2014 “the part of Couchsurfing’s system that sends email to members was breached and an email was sent to approximately 1 million members.”  According to a CS Ambassador and IT consultant, the email contained malicious code, an XSRF attack (a Cross-site request forgery), including “embedded on-site action calls loaded as an image”, which would have erased reader’s membership data and deleted member profiles. By design or by accident, the action calls were deactivated in the original code. Couchsurfing censored some posts on the site referring to the incident and generally refused to explain how the breach was made.
Safety and criminal activity
Given the nature of hospitality networks, based on inviting strangers into private homes, safety is a primary concern.
Couchsurfing, Inc states that "all members are responsible for their own safety".
There are mechanisms Couchsurfing Inc before claimed increased safety and trust, visible on member profiles for potential hosts and guests:
- An optional payment verified system, verifying the member has access to a credit card or Paypal to make a $25 annual payment, and if they chose, is able to receive a postcard at an address that is not necessarily the address they use on the site, and/or to receive an SMS message on a cellphone or web service that allows anonymous sms.
- Personal references. Members have the option of leaving reciprocal comments on their experiences with other members.  Negative references are sometimes removed by the site when they are deemed to have been done in a retaliatory or unfair manner.
- A personal vouching system was discontinued in November 2014.
Then CEO Tony Espinoza stated in 2013 that none of the three primary safety mechanisms were reliable, and that sexual abuse, although certainly under-reported, was shockingly prevalent, including among Couchsurfing ambassadors.
Citing privacy concerns, Couchsurfing Inc does not comment on individual cases of Couchsurfing-related criminal activity. Ex-CEO Tony Espinoza stated in 2013 on the company website that "CS will continue to cooperate with all governmental subpoenas in accordance with the law."
Some representative cases involving Couchsurfing.com members using the site for criminal activities are listed below:
- On 5 March 2009 in Leeds, UK, a man threatened with death and raped a woman from Hong Kong who stayed with him by using the Couchsurfing website. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
- In July 2012, a Marseille Couchsurfing host admitted to French police that through a specially-constructed peephole he filmed and spied upon showering female students he hosted, treating their soap with acid to provoke itching, and drugging their food with tranquillisers, sexually assaulting them in their sleep. Upon awakening, due to the drugs, they had no memory of the events. Couchsurfing public relations personnel asked on the Couchsurfing.com website for Couchsurfing Ambassadors to not comment to the press concerning these events.
- On 26 March 2013, Portuguese police arrested a Couchsurfing host on rape charges in Lisbon.
- In 2013, "a popular host in Chicago and a CouchSurfing 'Ambassador'" was excluded from Couchsurfing.com after a considerable number of women complained of his inappropriate behaviour. The case underlines the limitations in the site's safety measures, the excluded member having previously obtained special trusted status on the site.
- A French couchsurfing guest was convicted in November 2013 of stealing credit cards, cash, cheques and goods from 58 different victims in numerous cities of France, mostly encountered through the Couchsurfing site. The thief also menaced her victims under another name using Facebook. 
- A couch surfer was arrested in the Jing'an District of Shanghai on 26 December 2013 after stealing and reselling goods such as cameras and computers from various hosts in Beijing and Shanghai. 
- A British mother of two was drugged and raped while staying in Norway with a 37-year-old Couchsurfing host, who had been previously convicted of rape. The police also investigated abuse of the children, but this could not be proven.  He was convicted.
- At first confined to house arrest, a Padua police officer was taken into custody 29 March 2014 after evidence brought prosecutors to suspect his sexual violence was not limited to two known cases, and after he was discovered still seeking new contacts through social media, in defiance of a legal injunction. Two additional drugged Couchsurfing guests were found at his apartment. A previous complaint had been filed with Scotland Yard by an American couchsurfer studying at Oxford. Dino Maglio “was the perfect host to the hundreds of young women he met online [...] After acting as a tourist guide for a day or two and lulling them into a sense of security, he is accused of drugging and raping them.”  He was found guilty and sentenced to six and a half years in prison, and is awaiting additional trials. 
- A 35 year old male Couchsurfing.org host was arrested on 5 November 2014 and charged with drugging and sexually violating a male couchsurfer in May 2014 and sexually violating another male couchsurfer in September 2014 in New Zealand. There are additional charges of theft and making an intimate visual recording.
Rollout of the Place Pages and site-wide censorship
In December 2012, major changes were made to the Couchsurfing website when the Place Pages system was instituted. Individual cities pages were replaced with Place Pages.The Place Pages were felt to have many user security and safety issues, geographical and technical problems, be difficult to navigate, and to encourage misuse of the Couchsurfing website.
On the Berlin, Chicago, and other message boards there was a loud outcry against the bannings and perceived censorship. Some users felt that Couchsurfing, as a for-profit company, would no longer uphold the open culture of hospitality exchange.
Dating and Hookup Site
While Couchsurfing tells members, "Don't contact other members for dating – we will consider this harassment", the "Couchsurfing" trade mark is legally registered as a dating site in the US and Europe. The site is often described on the Internet as a dating site or recreational sex site, and it has been called "The Greatest Hook-Up App Ever Devised".
Other hospitality exchange networks
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