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CouchSurfing without data protection

Bonn/Berlin, 13 September 2012

Due to numerous complaints from German users of the social network “CouchSurfing.org”, the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, Peter Schaar, criticizes the changes to the Terms of Use announced for 14th September 2012. In a letter to the U.S. authority responsible for the supervision of data protection, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Data Protection Commissioner pointed out the serious shortcomings of the Terms of Use.

Peter Schaar: The changes are unacceptable. Under German and European data protection law, they would be inadmissible. The new Terms of Use force the users to waive any control over their data if they want to continue to use the service. The case shows once more the need for a quick reform of the European data protection law while ensuring that the data protection of European users is also guaranteed when Internet services are offered from a third country. The planned “marketplace principle” would put a stop to such practices.

Under the new Terms of Use, by uploading contents such as news, photos and personal data, the members grant the company CouchSurfing a full and irrevocable license to a quasi unlimited use of those contents. Moreover, in the Privacy Policy, the company reserves the right to share data with third parties and to change the Terms of Use and the Privacy Policy at any time, without having to provide specific notice to the members about any changes.

Currently, the German or the European data protection law is not applicable in this present case, as the social network is operated by a company located in the U.S. without any branches in Germany or in other Member States of the European Union. The European Commission’s draft General Data Protection Regulation presented on 25th January 2012 provides for a provision stipulating that the strict principles of the EU data protection law should in general also apply when companies from non-EU countries offer their services to citizens of the European Union, even if the companies are not established in Europe (so-called “marketplace principle”).

CouchSurfing (http://www.couchsurfing.org) is an Internet-based hospitality network operated by a U.S. company. The members use the website in order to find free accommodation when travelling or in order to offer accommodation or other "hospitality services", such as guided city tours. According to the company, the network has now 4.8 Million members in more than 90,000 cities around the world with Germany being the country with the largest number of users after the United States of America. The system of the network to grant each other free accommodation and the resulting need for trust and security require the members to create a detailed profile including data such as name, address, telephone number, age, job, personal preferences, interests, and photos.

number:
18/2012
Date of issue:
13.09.2012

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