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Waterfront Toronto faces opposition from Sidewalk Toronto advisory panel over strict confidentiality agreement

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A confidentiality agreement presented to an arm’s-length volunteer committee is raising further questions about the transparency of Waterfront Toronto’s plans for the Quayside development, where Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Labs has proposed the construction of a technology-driven smart neighbourhood on the city’s eastern lakeshore.

A draft of the agreement obtained by The Logic instructs panel members not to disclose any information marked confidential or presented during closed meeting portions, and not to reveal that any such information was ever made available to them.

Multiple sources privy to the panel’s operations told The Logic that at least five members voiced opposition to the draft agreement, including at a closed-door session on June 7. One source told The Logic they had never seen a non-disclosure agreement for a volunteer committee as stringent as the one presented by Waterfront Toronto.

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To date, less than half of the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel—the 15-member volunteer committee that advises Waterfront Toronto on the project—has signed the agreement.

“There have been constructive conversations amongst the panelists on the confidentiality agreement and we will continue to consider their feedback as the agreements are finalized,” said Carol Webb, a spokesperson for Waterfront Toronto.

Talking Point

Members of a Waterfront Toronto digital strategy advisory panel for Sidewalk Toronto’s Quayside development are voicing concerns over a confidentiality agreement. The pushback adds to questions surrounding the transparency of the ambitious project on the city’s waterfront.

Announced in April, the panel’s mandate is to advise Waterfront Toronto on privacy, transparency, data and technology issues as Sidewalk Toronto, the urban development subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, develops 12 acres of land at the city’s lakeshore.

Members of the panel have proposed several revisions to make the agreement less restrictive, including clarifying that any information not justifiably identified as confidential should be publicly available by default.

Eleven of the 15 members participated in a virtual session on Monday. Some members agreed to sign a temporary confidentiality agreement to cover that single meeting.

The panel’s interim chair is Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa. Membership includes representatives from the technology and financial sectors, and privacy and data experts.  

Geist told The Logic that he believes Waterfront Toronto is acting in good faith.

“Waterfront Toronto brought together some high-profile people who have been opinionated on this project, and obviously those people don’t want to sign up to something that may then restrict their ability to continue to speak out.” said Geist. “At the same time, I can understand [when] Waterfront Toronto says, ‘Listen, we’ve got commercial terms that we’re required to keep confidential under certain circumstances and we want feedback, so we need to find a mechanism that allows us to do that.’”

The draft agreement additionally states that, should any panel member be required to disclose confidential information by law, Waterfront Toronto may fight to stop that disclosure in court.

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“I acknowledge and agree that Waterfront Toronto may be irreparably damaged if any provision of this Agreement is not performed by me in accordance with its terms,” it reads. “Accordingly, Waterfront Toronto shall be entitled to an immediate remedy of a restraining order, interim injunction, injunction or other form of injunctive or other relief as may be decreed or issued by any Court to prevent breaches of this Agreement.”

The panel is scheduled to meet three more times this year, but the success of those meetings, as well as the panel at large, depends on the negotiations surrounding the confidentiality agreement.

Waterfront Toronto should be working in as open and transparent a manner as possible,” said Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and open government advocate. “This is a complex deal being negotiated on behalf of Toronto residents. There are ways to seek detailed advice from this panel, and the public, without requiring a confidentiality agreement.

“It’s unfortunate they didn’t start with that approach.”

On Tuesday, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto announced an extension for the release of their joint plan for the project. Originally slated for release this summer, the plan is now expected to be released in Spring 2019 for consideration by both organizations’ boards.

Waterfront Toronto, whose agreement with Sidewalk Labs stems from a Request for Proposals they released in March 2017, was created in 2001 with support from the City of Toronto, the Ontario government and the federal government. Their 25-year mandate tasks the organization with the renewal of 2,000 acres of lands on the city’s waterfront into mixed-used communities and public spaces.

 

Photo credit: Sidewalk Toronto