Google’s “Smart City” Faces Resistance in Toronto


The world’s most ambitious “smart city,” known as Quayside, in Toronto, has faced fierce public criticism since last fall, when the plans to build a neighborhood “from the internet up” were first revealed. Quayside represents a joint effort by the Canadian government agency Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., to develop 12 acres of the valuable waterfront just southeast of downtown Toronto.

In keeping with the utopian rhetoric that fuels the development of so much digital infrastructure, Sidewalk Labs has pitched Quayside as the solution to everything from traffic congestion and rising housing prices to environmental pollution. The proposal for Quayside includes a centralized identity management system, through which “each resident accesses public services” such as library cards and health care. An applicant for a position at Sidewalk Labs in Toronto was shocked when he was asked in an interview to imagine how, in a smart city, “voting might be different in the future.”

Other, comparatively quaint plans include driverless cars, “mixed-use” spaces that change according to the market’s demands, heated streets, and “sensor-enabled waste separation.” The eventual aim of Sidewalk Labs’s estimated billion-dollar investment is to bring these innovations to scale — first to more than 800 acres on the city’s eastern waterfront, and then to the world at large. “The genesis of the thinking for Sidewalk Labs came from Google’s founders getting excited thinking of ‘all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge,’” explained Eric Schmidt, Google’s former executive chair, when Quayside was first announced.

From the start, activists, technology researchers, and some government officials have been skeptical about the idea of putting Google, or one of its sister companies, in charge of a city. Their suspicions about turning part of Toronto into a corporate test bed were triggered, at first, by the company’s history of unethical corporate practices and surreptitious data collection. They have since been borne out by Quayside’s secret and undemocratic development process, which has been plagued by a lack of public input — what one critic has called “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.” In recent months, a series of prominent resignations from advisory board members, along with organized resistance from concerned residents, have added to the growing public backlash against the project.

A few weeks ago, Ann Cavoukian, one of Canada’s leading privacy experts and Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, became the latest stakeholder to resign from the project. Cavoukian was brought on by Sidewalk Toronto (as the collaboration between Waterfront Toronto and Google-sibling Sidewalk Labs is known) as a consultant to help institute a proactive, “privacy by design” framework. She was initially told that all data collected from residents would be deleted and rendered unidentifiable. Cavoukian learned last month, however, that third parties would be able to access identifiable information gathered at Quayside. “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” Cavoukian wrote in her resignation letter. Her concerns echoed those of residents who have long pointed to the privacy implications of handing over streets to the world’s most profitable data hoover.

In response to questions from The Intercept about Cavoukian’s resignation, a spokesperson for Sidewalk Labs said,  “Sidewalk Labs has committed to implement, as a company, the principles of Privacy by Design. Though that question is settled, the question of whether other companies involved in the Quayside project would be required to do so is unlikely to be worked out soon, and may be out of Sidewalk Labs’ hands.”

Now, in an effort to get ahead of Quayside’s development before it’s too late, a coalition of experts and residents have launched a Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum. The group represents the latest and largest effort by Torontonians to start having the kinds of public conversations, teach-ins, and debates that should have “taken place last year, when this project was first announced,” according to Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and one of the lead organizers of the opposition to Sidewalk Toronto. “The process Sidewalk Toronto has started has been so anti-democratic that the only way to participate is to be proactive in framing the topic,” Wylie continued.

Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum is taking the lead in the local fight against the commodification of its city’s data. The group’s struggle is one that urban residents around the world have been watching closely. Even those who never set foot in Canada may soon be subject to the products, norms, and techniques produced by Sidewalk Toronto, simply by virtue of using Google’s earth-spanning services. “This isn’t just about data being sold,” Wylie said. “It’s also about how is this data being used with other kinds of data in other products. You can move a lot of information around within Alphabet without having to sell it, and we need to talk about that.” The outcome of Toronto’s ability to rein in the Google affiliate, in other words, has ramifications not just for Canadians, but also for the future of who controls our civic life.

A City of Surveillance

Sidewalk Toronto’s ongoing controversies may serve as the latest warning sign for cities who are considering signing over public spaces to major tech companies. Cavoukian’s decision to quit represents only the most recent resignation in a series of departures that Wylie has referred to as an “ongoing bulldozing of stakeholders.” In addition to Cavoukian, a Waterfront Toronto board member and two Waterfront Toronto digital advisers have also resigned in the last five months. Three more digital advisers have also threatened to resign unless major changes are made to the project’s planning process.

In anticipation of the negative press, Sidewalk Labs has allocated $11 million of its initial $50 million budget to “communications/engagement/and public relations.” This includes a strategy of building influencers “to ensure support for the Master Innovation and Development Plan among key constituents in Toronto.” Last week, iPolitics reported that Sidewalk Labs has begun lobbying at least 19 federal departments, including the prime minister’s office, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Treasury Board, among others. The meetings all took place days after the resignation of Cavoukian, the former Ontario privacy commissioner.

But so far, the project has been losing allies more quickly than it’s been making them. When Saadia Muzaffar, a prominent technologist and the founder of TechGirls Canada, resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel in October, it was due in part to the partnership’s “blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure.” In her viral letter of resignation, Muzaffar criticized Sidewalk Toronto’s dishonest negotiations process: “There is nothing innovative about city-building that disenfranchises its residents in insidious ways and robs valuable earnings out of public budgets, or commits scarce public funds to the ongoing maintenance of technology that city leadership has not even declared a need for.”

If Google’s other global projects are any indication, Sidewalk Lab’s venture in Canada may hew closely to the Silicon Valley model of offering free services in exchange for the right to virtually limitless data collection. Sidewalk Labs-associated LinkNYC and InLinkUK kiosks have already been installed in New York and London. The kiosks — which include three cameras, 30 sensors, and Bluetooth beacons — aggregate anonymized data for advertising purposes in exchange for providing passersby with free Wi-Fi services.

Given that there is no genuine way to opt out of public space, Torontonians have been asking questions about what meaningful consent would look like. In the case of Quayside, the terms of any agreement wouldn’t just cover Wi-Fi but could also extend to basic government services. Julie Di Lorenzo, a real estate developer who left Waterfront’s board in July, explained to the AP that questions she had asked about residents who might not consent to share data had gone unanswered. She wanted to know if those who didn’t opt-in to the city would be told that they couldn’t live there. “It’s one thing to willingly install Alexa in your home,” wrote Toronto journalist Brian Barth. “It’s another when publicly owned infrastructure — streets, bridges, parks and plazas — is Alexa, so to speak.”

Adding to these concerns is the fact that Sidewalk Labs has asked potential local consultants to hand over all of their intellectual property, according to a recent Globe and Mail investigation. As Jim Balsillie, the former CEO of Blackberry, recently pointed out in an op-ed, Waterfront Toronto has left the ownership of intellectual property and data unresolved in its latest agreement; this means that it would default to Sidewalk Labs, giving the company a gross market advantage. Indeed, in an announcement last year, Schmidt went as far as to thank Canadian taxpayers for creating some of Alphabet’s key artificial intelligence technology, the intellectual property of which the company now owns. Balsillie noted that what happens in Toronto will “have profound and permanent impacts on the digital rights and prosperity of all Canadians because IP [intellectual property] and data — our century’s most valuable extractive resources — spread seamlessly.” This is why current and former stakeholders in Waterfront Toronto have called for the public to receive financial benefits from the project, emphasizing that Canada’s largest city should not simply be seen as a U.S. company’s urban laboratory.

The Sidewalk Labs spokesperson said that the company’s “relationship with its contractors does not impact its agreements with Waterfront Toronto in any way, including its commitment to the process laid out in the PDA, which says that in the future Waterfront Toronto may have rights to certain Sidewalk Labs IP. Of course, if Sidewalk Labs does not own the IP created by the planning process, it would not have the power to share or convey that IP to Waterfront Toronto or anyone else.”

Yet until recently, Sidewalk Labs refused to say who will own data produced by Quayside’s visitors, workers, and residents in what it calls “the most measurable community in the world.” Nor had the company clarified, despite facing pointed questions at public town hall-style meetings, whether or how the information streaming in from sensors in park benches, traffic lights, and dumpsters would be monetized. (The writer Evgeny Morozov has summed up Google’s strategy as “Now everything is permitted – unless somebody complains.”)

In an apparent response to the mounting public pressure against the project, Sidewalk Labs recently released its first proposal for the digital governance of its collected data. Most significant among these plans was the suggestion that all data be placed in a “civic data trust.” On the company’s blog, Alyssa Harvey Dawson, Sidewalk Labs’ Head of Data Governance, explained that with the proposed creation of a civic data trust, no one would have the “right to own information collected from Quayside’s physical environment — including Sidewalk Labs.” This would represent, she wrote, “a new standard for responsible data use that protects personal privacy and the public interest while enabling companies, researchers, innovators, governments, and civic organizations to improve urban life using urban data.”

According to experts who have been following the project closely, the details of how this trust might be implemented are vague and at times contradictory. On one hand, the proposal states that Sidewalk Labs would get no preferential access to any data that is collected. On the other, as Sean McDonald points out, “the proposed trust would grant licenses to collect and use data — and the more sensitive the data, the more proprietary it would be.” There is also the question of just how anonymous certain data would be, and whether such anonymity would be reversible when it came to sharing information with law enforcement. Some residents are opposed to Sidewalk Labs having any involvement with this data proposal. “It is as if Uber were to propose regulations on ride-sharing, or Airbnb were to tell city council how to govern short-term rentals. By definition, there is a conflict of interest,” writes Nabeel Ahmed, a smart city expert and member of the Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum.

Part of the mission of the new Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum is to shift the public conversation away from debating the latest minutiae of the company’s proposed terms and toward a broader consideration of whether the project should move forward under any terms at all. This conversation, Wylie emphasizes, should be taking place between residents and the government; Sidewalk Labs should not be the only voice setting the terms and advancing the agenda. “We need to state clearly and unambiguously that this infrastructure is public,” Wylie said. “You can say in March, ‘This data isn’t being collected,’ but then in July, it’s updated to do something else. This infrastructure creates plausible surveillance so long as you always keep the door open to what’s possible.”

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