Sidewalk Labs’ expanded proposal offering more oversight not enough, critics say

Published On June 25, 2019 | By Justin Mowat | News

The proposed Smart City would be pedestrian-friendly, prioritizing foot and bike traffic over vehicles. (Sidewalk Labs)

Justin Mowat

Sidewalk Labs released its master plan for a proposed Smart City in Toronto’s Port Lands Monday, outlining its response to growing public concerns about data collection and privacy within the development.

The 1,524-page document also proposes a 77-hectare Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. The original Quayside site proposal earlier this year totaled only five hectares. 

Sidewalk Labs, the Manhattan-based sister company of Google (now under parent company Alphabet), put forward two new initiatives in the report to address mounting public concerns about plans for sweeping private data collection in the proposed Smart City. 

The American multinational conglomerate intends to collect data from private residences and public environments within the development in order to put the information “to use for the greater good” and have it be “made publicly accessible for anyone to build on,” the report said.

Widespread digital data collection and increased connectivity would help to “explore and refine new solutions to pressing urban challenges, from energy use…to street safety,” the report said, but it remains unclear who would own the data after it’s collected.

The plan calls for an independent and government-sanctioned entity called the Urban Data Trust, which would manage data collected about individuals in private and public environments. It would also create a democratic process by which any collection of data within the city is reviewed, the report said.

The trust would also be responsible for establishing a set of Responsible Data Use Guidelines, which would “ensure that digital technology is being used to help address significant urban challenges,” the report said. 

It also said established guidelines would “include the need to outline a clear, beneficial purpose for the purported use or collection of urban data” throughout the entire 77-hectare IDEA. 

However, the proposed regulations aren’t concrete enough to adequately protect potential residents and their data, and are only in place as a smokescreen for corporate interests, said Daniel Bernhard, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting executive director.

“The Canadian government is allowing U.S. tech companies to make crucial governing decisions in the place of the Canadian people,” Bernhard said. 

He said foreign investment from Silicon Valley is surely an alluring draw for Toronto. But in the grand scheme of things, Sidewalk Labs’ proposal to invest approximately $1.3 billion in the city’s waterfront over 20 years is only a small fraction of parent company Alphabet’s annual revenue. 

There are other options in developing the Port Lands that would be more aligned with the values and standards demanded by city residents, and should be democratically explored, Bernhard said. Even more important is for Canada to establish a national data strategy before building a Smart City

Google, Facebook and other big tech companies are exempted from paying taxes by the Canada Revenue Agency because they don’t physically operate in the country, despite reaping a majority of online advertising dollars. 

And Bernhard wonders how accountable Sidewalk Labs will be to the residents of its proposed Smart City upon completion. For example, garbage collection is to be carried out by robots, but it is unclear who residents will turn to if the garbage robots fail to complete the task. 

Residents would regularly default to their municipal government for assistance on garbage collection, but Bernhard said it’s unclear who ultimately will be responsible for operations within the Smart City. The allocation of private versus public governance is a discussion to be had, he said.

“We need to stop asking companies like Google how our societies will be governed. We need to set own rules based on own values and standards…and find partners who can follow our rules,” Bernhard said.

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