Guest or host, you never know what you're going to get writes Alexander Bisley.

Former Hawke's Bay Airbnb host Tony Mark Greathead pleaded guilty to 69 charges related to the covert filming and distribution of images of nude Airbnb guests. Thirty four women from around the world had their privacy violated in his Airbnb shower and bathroom between December 2017 and February 2018. The women were filmed on 219 recordings through covert cameras concealed in shampoo bottles. Under the moniker "bathroomvoyeur", Greathead uploaded 11 videos to a pornographic website. He is serving four years and four months in jail.

Greathead usually organised his guests' shower times. I boarded at one of New Zealand's most conservative boys' boarding schools for six months and, even there, shower times were fluid.

So I asked Airbnb's Australian press office four questions, via email: Is it okay for your hosts to set times when guests can shower? How confident can we be that our privacy is respected when using your service? What steps have you taken to ensure this won't happen again? And, most importantly, have all the women whose privacy was violated been compensated?


They didn't engage directly with the questions, but instead repeated an earlier short media statement ("We take privacy extremely seriously and there is no place in our community for this type of egregious behaviour"), other platitudes and linked to their electronic surveillance devices page and standards page.

You decide whether that is good enough from a $31-billion corporation.

Do the tech-elite learn from their off-putting hubris? Seasoned New York politician Liz Krueger says Airbnb is the most disingenuous and recidivist company she has ever dealt with. For my part, I haven't been impressed as a host or a guest. As the latter, you don't really know what you're getting. It's like Uber, where five-star ratings can mean anything from excellent to tolerably okay. There's not the surety of the Copthorne (mediocrity), the Cordis (luxury), or the pal's couch (bargain). My Tokyo Airbnb room was over the intersection of a four-lane road, which meant it was very noisy 24 hours a day. There was no receptionist who could rectify my sleep-deprived situation, nor an in-house host.

The credible complaints against Airbnb are many, and it hasn't been the great innovator for the people it boasts of being. Bookabach (now regrettably taken over by HomeAway) has provided Kiwis better experiences since 2000.

Bookabach was facilitating my friends and me having a wonderful time in Golden Bay over half a decade before Airbnb even showed up in Aotearoa. Airbnb's fees for hosts and guests are excessive, greedy, and disingenuous. Kiwis listing on Bookabach also had more agency over who they let their properties to, and how.

I tried Airbnb hosting twice when I was between flatmates and needed to knock out the rent for my lovely apartment, and don't recommend it. Airbnb desire you take almost every reservation you receive. I wasn't comfortable hosting the guy who said his partner had just kicked him out, the rough-looking guy who had received negative reviews for previously flouting house rules, or the couple whose request was chocker with fussy and pedantic demands. Say no, and Airbnb will suppress your listing and maybe threaten to deactivate you. I mostly got in less money than I would with a flatmate, and that's before factoring in all the time cleaning and hosting. Meanwhile Airbnb kept sending cheery emails saying I should further cut my rate. Reminiscent of Uber Eats, some struggling, small Kiwi accommodation providers have been forced on to Airbnb and have had another chunk taken out of already anaemic profit margins.

Alexander Bisley questions what Airbnb has done to assure guests they will be safe from voyeurs like Tony Greathead. Photo / Duncan Brown
Alexander Bisley questions what Airbnb has done to assure guests they will be safe from voyeurs like Tony Greathead. Photo / Duncan Brown

While I had some very good guests, not all guests respected my home or me. I grew up in a whānau where there were often manuhiri (visitors) staying. But commercialising your living space tends to make the equation different. On one couple checking out, I found that they'd made a $26 toll call to New Caledonia and rendered a sheet unusable through bleach-washing. They didn't pay me back as agreed after I contacted them and Airbnb didn't reply to my message about the matter (or seem to have an effective complaints service). Then there was the guy who demanded a check-in of 90 minutes of questions and went on to rudely treat me as concierge, counsellor and maid. He requested I get him an ironing board and then didn't use it. Discretion means I won't go into the state he left the bathroom facilities in.

What's next? An app where people rent out their business shirts and shoes? Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has boasted about maybe launching an Airbnb airline. Chesky needs to focus on guaranteeing Airbnb's basic promises.

For all his and his Uber pal Travis Kalanick's lofty rhetoric, their "sharing" economy is just under-regulated, tax-avoiding transnational corporations profiteering off the trickle-down theory.