6 May 2019 | By Amanda Coletta | The Washington Post
“It’s our job to remind everybody that ‘no’ is an option and that consent is important,” said Bianca Wylie, one of the leaders of #BlockSidewalk.
TORONTO — The Google sister company promised to transform a dilapidated stretch of the Toronto waterfront into the world’s most technologically advanced neighborhood.
Quayside would be outfitted with robotic garbage collection, snow-melting sidewalks and self-driving taxibots. Sensors would capture data on park bench usage, air quality and more, aimed at making the neighborhood more livable.
It was handshakes and smiles all around when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and officials from Sidewalk Labs gathered here 18 months ago to announce the data-driven city of tomorrow. But internal discord and public criticism are threatening the project.
“I don’t think they look so happy now,” said Paula Fletcher, a Toronto City Council member. “This big idea isn’t going exactly the way it was planned.”
As in New York, where fierce opposition to Amazon led the online retail giant to cancel plans to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, a local movement here is growing to send Sidewalk Labs packing. Their concerns: money, privacy, and whether Toronto is handing too much power over civic life to a for-profit American tech giant.
The #BlockSidewalk campaign formed in February after the Toronto Star reported on leaked documents indicating that Sidewalk Labs was considering paying for transit and infrastructure on a larger portion of the waterfront. In return, it would seek a cut of the property taxes, development fees and the increased value of the land resulting from the development — an estimated $6 billion over 30 years.
Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said it hadn’t shared the proposal because it was still being debated. But it was a tough look for a company that has come under fire for a lack of transparency around its business model and the question of who would own and govern the data and intellectual property at the heart of its proposal.
“It’s our job to remind everybody that ‘no’ is an option and that consent is important,” said Bianca Wylie, one of the leaders of #BlockSidewalk. “The way this process has been set up was not a question of whether we should do stuff like this, but how.”
Separately, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing the city, provincial and federal governments to shut down the project over privacy concerns. Michael Bryant, the head of the group, said Trudeau had been “seduced by the honey pot of Google’s sparkling brand and promises of political and economic glory.”
Sidewalk Labs committed $50 million to conducting year-long public consultations and creating a master plan to be submitted to Waterfront Toronto, a corporation that represents the three levels of government in developing the area. The plan would require the approval of the corporation and several government bodies to advance.
The plan is expected by the end of June — more than six months behind schedule.
The company has acknowledged missteps.
Micah Lasher, the head of policy and communications for Sidewalk Labs, said providing more details about the business model for Quayside and plans for data governance earlier would have helped allay many concerns. But he also said the business model remains uncertain.
Lasher said the company has struggled to figure out when to unveil ideas to the public.
“If you share them too early, they seem half-baked and you might move away from them later,” he said. “If you share them too late, you are subject to criticism for not being transparent.”
Long before the #BlockSidewalk movement and the civil liberties lawsuit, controversies had already provoked public skepticism.
Some disillusionment stemmed from the flurry of coverage about how tech firms, Google included, handle their customers’ personal data.
Sidewalk Labs has downplayed links to its corporate sibling, saying it won’t monetize the data it collects and proposing that it be governed by a data trust that would set the rules around its use.
Andrew Clement, a professor emeritus in the University of Toronto’s faculty of information studies and member of a Waterfront Toronto advisory panel, said questions remain about the trust. Instead of answering them, he added, Sidewalk has been distracting people with new prototypes, such as raincoats for buildings.
Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk were both rocked by several high-profile resignations and dismissals last year. Ontario’s former privacy commissioner resigned from a paid consulting role with Sidewalk because she said its plans for the data trust fell short of her standards.
Then, in December, Ontario’s auditor general found that Waterfront Toronto gave Sidewalk preferential treatment in selecting it as its partner for Quayside, and called for greater government oversight.
Wylie, the #BlockSidewalk leader, said cities are relinquishing too much power to big tech companies as regulators are trying to rein them in.
But some worry that showing Alphabet the door would stain the tech-friendly image Trudeau has tried to cultivate for Canada.
“We believe that tearing up this process midstream poses reputational risks, trade risks and legal risks,” Brian Kelcey, the vice president of public affairs for the Toronto Region Board of Trade, told a parliamentary committee last month.
Thank you to MG for sharing this article with us @ Z5G!