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Explain conversations with Sidewalk Labs or ‘hit the pause button’ on smart city project, says NDP ethics critic to Trudeau government

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An opposition-party critic is calling on the Trudeau government to provide clarity about Google sister company Sidewalk Labs’ smart city development or to put the project on hold.

Charlie Angus, NDP ethics critic and Timmins–James Bay member of Parliament, sent a letter Tuesday to Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne, expressing concerns about Sidewalk Toronto. The project, which is a partnership between government agency Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, has not been working in the public interest, according to Angus.

Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on-hand to announce the partnership in October 2017, the project has been “dogged by serious ethical, economic and technological concerns by Toronto residents as well as observers in Canada and around the world,” wrote Angus. He said it could “create a 21st century company town” by allowing Alphabet to “engage in anti-competitive practices favouring its own technologies and subsidiary investments.”

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“What worries me deeply are comments made by Eric Schmidt, Alphabet’s chairperson, where he said that a Google-led smart city project would require ‘substantial forbearances from existing laws and regulations,’” reads his letter, which was obtained by The Logic. “I am not aware of any other building project that requires exemption from national law in order to succeed.”

Angus asked Champagne’s department to explain any conversations it has had with Alphabet regarding “which laws may be specifically rewritten to benefit” the Sidewalk Toronto project.

Talking Point

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus sent a letter Tuesday asking the federal government to explain its communications with Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs, and to provide more clarity on the proposed smart city development on Toronto’s waterfront.

Sidewalk Labs has lobbied officials from Infrastructure Canada six times since October 2017, including former minister Amarjeet Sohi on two occasions. The company hasn’t lobbied any other federal minister.

“Unless we have answers from Alphabet/Google on why they don’t believe they should be made to comply with civic accountability and national law, it would be better to hit the pause button on this project,” Angus wrote.

Asked about Angus’s letter, Champagne reaffirmed through a spokesperson his confidence in the project. In a statement, the minister said the government is “proud” to partner with the province and city on the reclamation of the urban shoreline, and that Waterfront Toronto “takes seriously concerns surrounding data and privacy.” He added that the government is monitoring Sidewalk Lab’s data strategy proposal, released this week, “to ensure this innovative redevelopment takes place in an ethical and accountable fashion.”

In an interview, Angus said he was compelled to write the letter following the resignation of Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls Canada, from a panel Waterfront Toronto convened to guide its digital and privacy strategies on the Sidewalk project.

In a resignation letter dated October 4, Muzaffar wrote that throughout the project, Waterfront Toronto showed “apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust,” and had not sufficiently answered questions about privacy and intellectual property.

“The concerns that she raised about the lack of public consultations were a sign to me that there was something going wrong,” said Angus. “This plan needs a reset or it needs some kind of explanation to reassure the public that their interest is first and foremost in the minds of those who are developing this project.”

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This week, Sidewalk Labs proposed that an independent “Civic Data Trust” should control and set the rules around the data generated from the smart city development, and make it open and accessible while offering privacy protection.

“Sidewalk Labs continues to assume privileges that the residents of Toronto have not granted them,” said Muzaffar about the data trust proposal in an email to The Logic. “They are a vendor. This is hasty, and continues to make a mockery of our democratically-informed processes of city-building.”

Angus added he is concerned that Alphabet and Sidewalk, “through investments in all manner of subsidiary companies,” could be “setting up technologies that will benefit [their] own financial interests and not the larger public interest.”

Angus’s letter follows months of growing controversy around the project.

John Ruffolo, former OMERS Ventures CEO, resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s digital advisory panel in July, citing privacy concerns. Weeks later, Julie Di Lorenzo, the prominent Toronto developer, stepped down from the organization’s board of directors, writing she did not believe the Sidewalk Toronto project was “in the best interest of [Waterfront] and our country.”

Intellectual property experts have also been critical of attempts by Sidewalk Labs to get building-design partners to surrender their IP. Meanwhile, the provincial auditor general is conducting a value-for-money audit of Waterfront Toronto that will examine its partnership with Sidewalk.

Jennifer Keesmaat, the former chief city planner of Toronto currently running for mayor, said Tuesday that “the deal with Sidewalk Labs was done behind closed doors, without proper public transparency about what Waterfront Toronto and Google were planning to do on our waterfront.”

Angus said he still believes there is “enormous potential” to develop smart city projects in Canada, but that the government is too narrowly focused on major foreign tech firms like Google and Amazon.

“That’s not adding to the innovation agenda in Canada; it’s certainly helping Silicon Valley,” he said, adding that the government should establish a “public-interest element” for the Sidewalk Toronto project.