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House ethics committee will question Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff next week

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Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff is set to appear before a key parliamentary committee next week to face questions about the controversial Quayside project on the Toronto waterfront.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics will hear from Doctoroff—as well as Micah Lasher and John Brodhead, head of policy and communications and director of policy and strategy, respectively—on April 2. Two days later, Julie Di Lorenzo—a former board member of Waterfront Toronto, the government agency partnering with Sidewalk on the Quayside—is scheduled to appear.

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The two meetings come six weeks after the committee heard from Waterfront Toronto executives Meg Davis, the agency’s chief development officer, and Kristina Verner, its vice-president of innovation.

The hearing is part of the committee’s study of the privacy of digital government services; Waterfront Toronto is a joint federal-provincial-municipal agency. The Quayside project has been a repeated subject of discussion at the committee, which has become Ottawa’s key forum for discussing Big Tech regulation.

Peter Kent, Conservative ethics critic, said he’s hoping to get more detail about Sidewalk Labs’ plans for Toronto at the meeting. “I think everybody has to know exactly what Sidewalk Labs’ expectations are in terms of their business plan and their revenue projections, beyond the wonderful new benefits that Mr. Doctoroff promotes,” he said. “We need the entire picture, not just the vision and the dream and the sketches.”

Talking Point

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff and two other executives will testify before the House of Commons ethics committee on April 2. Conservative MP Peter Kent said he will seek more details about the company’s plans for land use, transit funding and data ownership in its Quayside project on Toronto’s waterfront.

Kent cited land use, transit funding and data ownership as being among the issues on which he will seek more information. In February, the Toronto Star and the National Observer reported on internal Sidewalk Labs documents showing that the company had plans for over 100 acres of Toronto’s waterfront, not just the 12 acres of the Quayside. The company reportedly planned to finance a light rail line, and to seek a share of developer charges and tax revenues from the surrounding area resulting from the improvements.

Provincial government sources told The Canadian Press that Premier Doug Ford would not approve the plans as reported. Toronto city councillors have also said they do not support it. Sidewalk Labs has said the plans as reported were outdated, but also that the Quayside didn’t have the necessary “scale” to implement its urban innovations, and that Sidewalk Labs had considered developer charges and property tax revenues as well as funding the transit line.

Doctoroff subsequently said the company’s business model “is in part through profiting through development” in an appearance on CBC’s Metro Morning in late February. “If we actually play a role in financing something that otherwise isn’t going to get done, we obviously have to get paid back,” he said, speaking of the transit line.

In early March, Doctoroff said that if the light rail line to the Quayside site was not built, Sidewalk Labs would consider pulling out of the project. Kent noted that the province’s plan to take over the TTC from the city—as laid out in letters to municipal officials released this week—contains no such waterfront transit line.

Sidewalk Labs declined to comment on Doctoroff’s upcoming appearance.

Kent also cited the resignation of privacy expert Ann Cavoukian as an adviser to Sidewalk Labs over its plans to protect personal information from residents and others involved with the Quayside project. “My discomfort is similar to the discomfort that we heard from Ms. Cavoukian with regards to who owns the data that will be generated [and] where it will go,” said Kent.

At the ethics committee’s February meeting, Liberal MP Adam Vaughan sought assurances from Waterfront Toronto executives that the project would be required to comply with existing data and privacy laws, which they provided.

Vaughan—who is not a regular member of the ethics committee, but whose riding includes the Quayside site—also relayed what he said were details of a meeting with Jim Balsillie—the former Research in Motion (now BlackBerry) co-CEO—including that Balsillie said he “would throw Waterfront Toronto in front of Google to stop Google.” In a subsequent letter to the committee, Balsillie accused the Liberal MP of lying about their conversation, although Vaughan stood by his comments in an interview with The Logic.

Di Lorenzo, a prominent Toronto real-estate developer who resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s board last July, will be at the ethics committee meeting on April 4, alongside an unrelated group of witnesses whose scheduled appearance last week was cancelled because of voting in the House of Commons.

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Di Lorenzo also disputed some of the testimony at the February meeting. Davis told the assembled MPs that the agency’s investment and real estate committee “had reviewed all of the document and had given guidance to the negotiation team.” But Di Lorenzo, who chaired the committee, wrote in a statement to The Logic, “I can confirm that there were many outstanding and fundamental questions unanswered at the time of the vote on October 16, 2017.”

Kent emphasized that he thinks Waterfront Toronto is “a magnificent organization,” and used the same adjective to describe Google. But he said the company “can be a bit of a big foot when it comes to prioritizing revenue generation over privacy,” citing his committee’s recommendations for regulating Big Tech arising from its study of the misuse of Facebook user information by Cambridge Analytica.

Kent is not the only member to raise concerns about the project. NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus has called for the project to be suspended over concerns about the short timeline of the Request for Proposals, and because of Sidewalk Labs executives’ lobbying of top government officials.