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Charlie Angus calls for pause on Sidewalk Labs project over growing public concern

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Charlie Angus is calling on the Justin Trudeau government to hit pause on Sidewalk Labs’ smart-city development in Toronto, three months after the NDP ethics critic asked the government to address growing concerns from the public and experts that he said have been ignored.

In October 2018, The Logic reported that Angus, member of Parliament for Timmins–James Bay, wrote to Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne, expressing concerns that Sidewalk Labs—in partnership with Waterfront Toronto, a government agency—was not working in the public’s interest.    

Three months later, Angus said those worries have still not been addressed, while “public concern over this project has only deepened.”

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In a letter sent to Champagne on January 11, Angus noted an Ontario auditor general’s report—first reported to be underway by The Logic—that raised “serious red flags” about the development. The report highlighted concerns that Waterfront Toronto provided information to Sidewalk Labs ahead of the Request for Proposals (RFP) period and “the unusually short timeline for submitting the RFP,” Angus wrote, “… for a project of unprecedented complexity, tremendous financial value and unknown scope and impact.”

“The Government of Canada is not party to Waterfront Toronto’s agreement with Sidewalk Labs regarding the Quayside development,” said Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, in an email.

Vaillancourt did not address whether her office has any plans to directly respond to Angus’ concerns, but that it takes concerns surrounding data and privacy related to the Quayside development seriously. She also said the federal government is reviewing the Ontario auditor general’s recommendations “to ensure that its investments in Waterfront Toronto continue to be effectively and responsibly managed.”

In an email to The Logic, Jim Balsillie, a former chairman and co-CEO of Research In Motion, applauded Angus for speaking out about the project. “Charlie is the rare politician who understands that this is the biggest, most consequential project the government has ever done and it has enormous implications for Canada’s prosperity, our rights and our democracy,” Balsillie said. “The federal government has yet to explain the role it played in the deal before the RFP was even released, especially the role of the senior Liberal staffers who pushed through this rushed deal yet now work for Google on the very same project.”

The auditor general’s report also flagged inadequate government consultation on the project, Angus noted in his letter. “Having a project of this scale pushed through by political staff behind the scenes would be wildly inappropriate,” Angus wrote, noting that several federal Liberal staffers have gone on to work for Sidewalk Labs on the project, including John Brodhead, the former chief-of-staff of Champagne’s predecessor, Amarjeet Sohi.

Talking Point

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus sent a letter to Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne asking the federal government to hit pause on Waterfront Toronto’s smart city project with Google sister company Sidewalk Labs, citing failure to to address concerns with the project from the public, privacy experts and the Ontario auditor general.

Angus also addressed high-profile resignations from the project, including the departure of privacy adviser Ann Cavoukian. Early on, Cavoukian had been a consistent advocate for Sidewalk Labs’ proposed smart city project and spoke publicly about how it could benefit Canada and serve as a model for cities around the world. Her confidence in Sidewalk Labs’ commitment to enforce privacy by design eventually eroded, however. “The question of whether other companies involved in the Quayside project would be required to [implement privacy by design] is unlikely to be worked out soon, and may be out of Sidewalk Labs’ hands,” Cavoukian wrote in her October 2018 resignation letter.

“For a project that claims to be committed to the principle of privacy by design driving away the very person who articulated that concept in Canada is fairly stunning,” Angus wrote.  

In an October 2018 op-ed in The Globe and Mail, Balsillie criticized the smart-city project for benefiting a foreign tech giant at the expense of Toronto residents. “None of my concerns have been addressed, instead more troubling information keeps surfacing,” he said. “Waterfront Toronto’s management is refusing to share straightforward information when I request it, public consultations are still run by the vendor and the Auditor General’s recommendations have not been implemented.”

In response to growing public concerns around privacy, Sidewalk Labs proposed in October 2018 to create an independent “Civic Data Trust.” The trust would control and set the rules around the data generated from the smart-city project, making it open and accessible while offering privacy protection.

Angus said Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff reacted to public criticism by meeting with several government officials, including a deputy secretary to the cabinet, three deputy ministers and “a host of assistant and associate deputy ministers” to strategize a response to the outcry. Angus said that approach showed that the government was “focused on helping Google, and not taking the time to alleviate the growing concerns of the public.”

While Angus said he agreed that Canada could benefit from the smart-city development, he wrote that such projects should be rooted in benefiting the public. “This deal, unfortunately, is looking more and more like a plan cooked up with American lobbyists to benefit Google.”

More to come.