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Quayside, Toronto’s Google-linked smart city, draws opposition over privacy, costs

Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, has proposed transforming a stretch of the Toronto waterfront into a data-driven city of tomorrow. (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star)

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. The concerns: money, privacy and whether Toronto is handing too much power over civic life to a for-profit American technology giant.

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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 the reason it had not shared the proposal was that it was still being debated. But it was a tough look for a company that has come under fire over a lack of transparency around its business model and over 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.”

In the original “vision document” for Quayside, Sidewalk Labs described adaptive traffic lights that would detect when pedestrians and cyclists were at a light to ensure that they had priority to cross. Sensors would detect when benches needed to be repaired, when waste bins needed to be emptied and when bicycle lanes should be transformed into pedestrian walkways, or vice versa.

The vision document also mentioned “health sensors” but did not elaborate. A digital identification system would enable residents and workers to access services.

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.”

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Long before the #BlockSidewalk movement and the civil liberties lawsuit, controversies had already provoked public skepticism.

Some of the 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 will not 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 Labs 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 Labs more information before a request for proposals than other companies that would be responding to the request.

According to the auditor general, Waterfront Toronto said it shared information with Sidewalk Labs as part of its regular “market sounding process” to gauge interest in the project, also shared it with some other groups and would have given it to any that asked. Waterfront Toronto said the information did not give potential bidders an unfair advantage.

The auditor general said that “fair practice and equal treatment would suggest that all potential bidders receive the same information at the same time” 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, vice president of public affairs for the Toronto Region Board of Trade, told a parliamentary committee last month.

Kristina Verner, Waterfront Toronto’s vice president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity, said that “the potential of this project is still very exciting.” She said she does not see any harm in waiting to see Sidewalk’s final plan.

“It is definitely not a done deal,” she said.

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