Guest Blog about P2P Commons in Practice

Schermafbeelding 2020-05-26 om 18.32.00

The article below by Katarzyna Gajewska is a paper first published here. My rough impression is that it describes the struggle in practice between [organizations that have for-profit marketoriented service production at their core] and [Communities that work on the basis of an online P2P shared Commons]. The theoretical framework for the latter: P2P Commons was laid out since many years ago by Michel Bauwens and other members of the P2PFoundation.Net

My personal impression is that a P2P Commons with online services by a community that shares clearly defined resources between its members who may or may not contribute is feasible. But only under strict and transparently defined rules. See: Elinor Ostrom – Wikipedia.  Such Commons behaves like a group of DOLPHINS, hunting together and having fun.

However in practice always (especially if the Commons is successful and starts to grow fast – using the Fifth Networking effect, see: https://theconnectivist.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/what-can-we-do-8-the-fifth-network-effect-the-law-of-p2p-cooperation-and-scaling-up/)  then  SHARKS  appear, who at first do all kinds of impopular tasks like the adminstration, billing or helping to get funding. And if the dolphins do not watch these sharks, boardmembers for sure, take over control of the company which has beeen established by them ” for convenience”. This is what happened at Facebook et. al. And now at GitHub too:

Screen Shot 2020-06-05 at 16.16.56

The sharks end up as seriously rich and powerful individuals, while those who worked their butts off to get things working, stay as slaves of their own ideals or are pushed out. So the Dolphins and the COMMUNITIES that share should be on their guard to shield and defend against the sharks (who are not evil, it is just their nature, and they are part of any healthy ecology. But so are Dolphins that defend themselves.

Please address comments and questions about this paper to Katarzyna Gajewska, who can be found of Facebook.  Schermafbeelding 2020-05-26 om 18.19.00

jaap van till, TheConnectivist

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ARTICLE P2P and ethical standards: the example of BeWelcome
3309 words,  Auteur : K. Gajewska – 20/05/2020
Katarzyna Gajewska CC BY

“Commons” ~Katarzyna Gajewska CC BY

Peer production and ethical standards: the example of BeWelcome.org

  • This is a guest article by Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD. She is an educator and author. She promotes cultural and structural change in her feminine utopia “Imagine a Sane Society.” You can help publish this Creative Commons book and make it accessible for free online by making a donation or spreading information about her crowdfunding campaign.
    If you want to re-publish the full version or parts of this article, please, include credits:  “by Katarzyna Gajewska  CC BY International, the article was first published May 26, 2020, on TheConnectivist, blog by Jaap van Till.”

The book “The Peer to Peer Manifesto”[1] identifies several models of the relations between core team and peers in peer production projects. The authors distinguish between two opposite visions: commons-based and extractive peer production. While the entire concept behind Couchsurfing, a platform that connects potential hosts and guests to arrange free accommodation, started with the commons-oriented mission of increasing the number of new connections between people and de-commodification of these encounters,[2] further steps of the company tend to represent more extractive characteristics. Volunteer work has been hijacked into not quite transparent moves of the company towards using this platform for profit making.

How to produce commons in the capitalist world? This is a huge dilemma for anyone who ponders on the transition towards an economy based on completely different principles and values inspired by the Commons movement. I have engaged in this discussion in the past and this is the topic included in the aforementioned
book. Here, I will portray two organizations providing very similar services, yet very different philosophies are underpinning their development strategies.
Couchsurfing has been around since 2003. In its history, there were several cases of disagreements between how it is run by the core team and the vision its users and co-producers have about it. The website would make no sense if there were no hosts willing to invite strangers to their apartments, and this for free.
The transition to for-profit status in August 2011 was disputed by the community. Many volunteers had been involved in setting up the website. Many hours of normally highly paid work had been donated because of the belief in the value of hospitality and sharing between strangers. And then the founder and his collaborator just decided about the change of status. Stefan Kamph revealed that the B-Corp, a name which the founders used to make an impression that the company is not completely for profit, did not refer to its legal status but to a certification by B-Labs. Many, including myself, have been misled by this communication maneuver implying that they had a Benefit Corporation status, while it is a C Corporation in fact. Delaware, where the company has been located, did not have a Benefit Corporation option as a company status.[3]
In 2012, Couchsurfing accepted venture capital funding in two rounds, which amounted to $ 22.6 million dollars. Casey Fenton, the founder behind the status change, left in 2012 and since then he has kicked off several other Silicon Valley start-ups. In a blog post from May 20 th , 2020, the core team stated that investor ‘s money had been mostly spent by the early 2015 and only one percent was left back then. They also disclosed that they were spending $40 thousands per month to pay a Google service before they have transitioned to a tenfold less expensive provider. Such a huge expense has not been consulted with the users.

ARTICLE P2P and ethical standards: the example of BeWelcome
3309 words,  Auteur : K. Gajewska – 20/05/2020

Several more CEOs after turning into a for-profit, on May 15 th 2020, I received a message from its team informing users that they impose fees, which will enable to use the website as before. They explain this change with the crisis caused by COVID-19. A friend of mine, who paid a verification fee before, and myself, who has hosted recently, could still use the platform. Another friend of mine, who has neither paid nor hosted, could not. Some users have been suddenly locked out from the network. They need to pay a fee in order to access the correspondence they had before this sudden decision of the CEO.
Some members have complained and discussion groups have started off among the members. Randy Marks, a retired lawyer hosting just outside of Washington DC, who has over hundred references left by surfers, does not mind to pay a fee. However, he was disgruntled over the lack of transparency, disguising compulsory fee as a contribution, and the lacking service behind the platform. “[Couchsurfing‘s] staff [is] the least responsive of ANY organization of which I’m a member,” he wrote.
Since 2014, Couchsurfing has sold advertisements on its website. The company wrote that they have never sold user data in their May 2020 blog post. I have been asked to update the privacy data upon login several times. I checked the details and found options for sharing of my activities on the website with dozens of companies. There is a list of vendors with links to their Privacy Policies. One needs to manually disallow it, otherwise one agrees on their Privacy settings by default. The explanation of data use from May 2018, 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.”
So far, it looks like a Facebook model of extracting users’ activities for value extraction. 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.” However, 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 users.
Furthermore, 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.”

ARTICLE P2P and ethical standards: the example of BeWelcome
3309 words Auteur : K. Gajewska – 20/05/2020

I cite the Privacy Policy as I found it on May 19 th , 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 are a new gold after all. Generally, financial situation is presented in a very vague way. For example, there was no calculation specifying the reasons behind the amount of the fee. In 2013, the CEO informed that the network grew to seven million members, which explains structural changes . However, there was no detailed information about
the costs related to the size of the network. The company wrote that four percent of users have paid a one-off verification fee, however, it did not inform how it translates in annual income.

The PhD thesis by Tan June-e points to the problems with transparency already in the early years of the organization. She cites 2009 resignation letters by volunteers, which mentioned cases of sexual harassment within the core team in a shared house.
Employee reviews on GlassDoor from January 2020 complain about the leadership style of the CEO Patrick Dugan, who comes from finance.
In the literature on cooperatives, historical analysis shows the tendency for watering down original missions as the organizations grow and become more embedded in the market logic. This seems to be the fate of Couchsurfing, which began as a movement of enthusiasts and has been overtaken by the precept of business-as-usual as inevitable because of one of the two co-founders. For platforms depended on non-commercial
work of so many people, especially the hosts who take a risk of not having the greatest of times in their own homes, the issues of accountability to the membership is a particularly important moral consideration.

There are three fundamental questions to be asked in the context of the development of peer production as a model for activists and theoreticians of this vision of the economy:
– How to protect peer production projects from degeneration and overtake?
– What are the ethical standards for commons-based peer production‘s benevolent dictators or coordination bodies?
– How to make such models viable economically without compromising the values and accountability to the peers who enable the project to function?

Many people in the community have migrated to the website BeWelcome.org as a response to the changes by Couchsurfing‘s core team, which they considered to be a betrayal and freeloading on their efforts. Website TrustRoots mentions criminal activities related to the conversion. There have been several spikes of migration.
One when the management sold the assets to themselves despite the fact that the main asset of Couchsurfing is the community of developers, organizers, and hosts and other people who made the site alive. After 2020 fee announcement, a steep rise of new members occurred.
The BeWelcome platform has been run by a French association since 2007. It is an open source project. Its origins go back to the Hospitality Club experience and volunteering. Hospitality Club was established in 2000.
Around 2006, many volunteers left due to the lack of transparency, manipulation of volunteers, and some

ARTICLE P2P and ethical standards: the example of BeWelcome
3309 words Auteur : K. Gajewska – 20/05/2020

disagreements over the legal status. In 2015, former volunteers from BeWelcome.org created (or forked in peer production parlance) a similar UK-based platform, Trustroots. The founders of this platforms were frustrated with the time it took to make decisions by consensus and the implementation of new features. No overt conflict was the reason to split.

No one is paid for their work with the platform. It is not the lack of finance but an organizational philosophy. Anja Kühner, Media Volunteer and former Executive Delegate at BeWelcome working as a professional economy journalist and tourist guide, explains that having paid staff could be detrimental in the long run because of the internal dynamics it would trigger: “Probably some things would go faster – like being able to
pay for coders. If one coder is being paid and the volunteer is not, then the volunteer would most likely stop working for BeWelcome immediately out of the feeling for inequality. Then other things would go slower.” She clarifies, “BeWelcome will sometimes pay for items, legal fees for instance, but it will not charge for, or make money out of, the hospitality exchanges that it is set up to promote.”[4]
Most volunteers have full-time jobs and some are retirees. The members of 2019-2020 Board of Directors are a teacher, a businesswoman, a biologist, a retired civil servant, and a circus teacher.
Since November 2019, the organization has a new Privacy Policy replacing the one dating from 2012. The rule now specifies that: “BeWelcome does not set any cookies to obtain or transmit marketing or other information. The only cookies set are for the essential purpose of user authentication and to display preference settings.
Use of the site will be deemed consent to these essential cookies.” Another document describing Data Rights states: “BeWelcome does not use personal data to make money, either for itself or on behalf of others.”
The platform may transfer member information to a third party, however, for a specified purpose of increasing the quality of the service. Anja Kühner gives such an example: “If BeWelcome does a member survey[,] we need to use a survey tool. Last time we did this was via Lamapoll. As we are using an external tool we have to
inform our members about this in the privacy policy. The transfer of their email addresses happened for the sole purpose of sending them the poll request. We signed a contract for “commissioned data processing” which means that the data transferred can only be used for the defined purpose BeWelcome needs (like sending out emails to our members).”
Furthermore, sharing data for commercial reasons is prevented by non-profit‘s statutes. A decision to sell data would require a decision by the General Assembly and Anja Kühner deems it highly difficult to pass the vote for this.
The Treasurer suggests to the General Assembly an amount that he/she estimates necessary to cover the expenses of the upcoming year. As there have been some years when donations were higher then the operating costs, the suggested amount may be lower. For example, in the operation year 2020-2021, their collection goal is 1300 Euros, whereas the total operation costs amount to 3250 Euros. The donations are
voluntary. The recent donations show that some contribute 5 Euros and some 100 Euros, and the rest any double digit in between. They have already reached the goal.
They publish their financial information .

ARTICLE P2P and ethical standards: the example of BeWelcome
3309 words Auteur : K. Gajewska – 20/05/2020

One may argue that the platform exists because the volunteers are employed in the market. Through their contributions, however, they are creating a non-market system of exchange. This enables them and others to de-commodify some parts of their travels. The more people are in, the more possibility to exchange hospitality. The platform increases the opportunities for other forms of relations between strangers.
Consistent with the idea of the Commons, one works for oneself while also working for others. In the long run, a culture is built and more commons-based initiatives can emerge due to a mentality shift and good experiences. Gradual organic work is needed for sustained transformation.
Couchsurfing‘s strategy supporters may argue that they have involved many more members than BeWelcome and were working on new features of their platform. So far, the features may have not been so good for the experience. Many have complained about the erasing of location groups and replacing them with different features, for example. A large amount of people unfamiliar with the culture of sharing may undermine the
experience for hosts because of the number of requests exceeding the capacity to reply and filter through.
This has led many to stopping hosting altogether. I experienced such periods as a Couchsurfing host during tourist influxes.
It seems that slow growth and consistence all the way is a better option in the long run. For example, not paying the core team would put every contributor at the same level. Someone who hosts a lot, as some people do, is also making a huge contribution to the network. Where should one draw a line between paid and unpaid contribution? Contributing to the platform maintenance and hosting people are indispensable for enabling hospitality. Hosting can also come with inconvenience such as dealing with a problematic guest or needing to clean a lot after someone with different cleanliness standards.
Another solution could be to help out financially those volunteers who are between jobs to enable them to give time and gain experience. But this could be financed through crowdfunding for a particular project with full transparency.

I am not against employment in peer production. I have done research on a kitchen and a supermarket partly operated by peers and partly by employees as a cooperative. Having employees is essential to the service. However, there is also more accountability possible in such locally restrained settings.

Hospitality platforms are by default most successful if there are members spread around the world, which makes the control and trust more difficult. Once such a platform demonstrates the limits of volunteering only approach, it may become necessary or more convenient to have somebody working full time. This could be a democratic decision of the users done through polls. However, we should not assume that this is the only possibility because the more users, the more potential volunteers and better ideas how to create coordination in a decentralized way.


We can see a culture clash between extractive peer production in Couchsurfing and commons-based peer production in BeWelcome. It is not only that the former is US-based and the latter mostly European. Some people in Couchsurfing core team would probably not enter this organization without a monetary incentive.
Money perpetuates the old culture, which hinders transformation potential. Probably, a CEO coming from finance has different ideas than a teacher. The clear rules regulating the non-profit sector in France further structure the accountability requirements and deter those who are into fast profit.

ARTICLE P2P and ethical standards: the example of BeWelcome
3309 words Auteur : K. Gajewska – 20/05/2020

These two organizational profiles are a warning and a guidance for those genuinely interested in spreading the values that motivated many contributors to Couchsurfing. Peer production movement needs to focus on cultural work and ask the big questions of morality and ethics. The fact that some people do not see an alternative to for-profit company, as many have voiced in the recent discussion, is also a sign for the movement that more ideological and expert clarification is necessary. Otherwise, the efforts may be hijacked by the old way of thinking and profiteering.

 

[1] Michel Bauwens, Vasilis Kostakis, Alex Pazaitis (2019): Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto. University of Westminster Press.
[2] A summary of a talk points to opposite views on profit among co-founders, Daniel Hoffer and Casey Fenton:
“According to Hoffer, Fenton was the idealist. (…). Fenton wanted CouchSurfing to stand the test of time and to become a social movement. The goal of CouchSurfing was not to make money. (…)
Hoffer, on the other hand, had always been for-profit from the very beginning. When they first started, he made sure to write up a contract between the two of them that detailed what would happen if CouchSurfing were to ever go for-profit, as he suspected it one day would.” in: Lindsey Txakeeyang (January 2013):
Couchsurfing Co-founder and former CEO Daniel Hoffer Discusses Leadership at the Stanford GSB. The Dish Daily.
[3] Stefan Kamph (2015): Loose Stuffing: How Couchsurfing lost its kumbaya. In: Glenn Fleishman (ed) The Magazine: The Complete Archives.
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.
[4] Interview answers were sent on May 20 th , 2020.
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. It is a very interesting analysis of trust, community and commodification of gift economy.
Le couchsurfing, pratique forgeuse d’une communauté? 2012, Master thesis by Julie Zeyer at the Institut dÉtudes Politiques de Lyon
Things you should know about the problems with the CouchSurfing organization

ARTICLE P2P and ethical standards: the example of BeWelcome
3309 words Auteur : K. Gajewska – 20/05/2020

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, first published in May 26, 2020  TheConnectivist blog.

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You can download the paper from here ==> BeWelcome

About broodjejaap

See ABOUT on TheConnectivist.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Civil Society, Commons Transition, Communities, Ethics, governance model, Internet of Things, P2P Power, P2P Theory, Parasites, Platforms, Uncategorized, volunteers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Guest Blog about P2P Commons in Practice

  1. Pingback: Calling Young Women to Interconnect and Cooperate, basis 12 for Synthecracy | The Connectivist

  2. Pingback: Couchsurfing Corporation and its peers: a story of volunteer work enclosure – Global Labour Column

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