Sidewalk Toronto is Bigger than Quayside, Bigger than Google

Samantha Burton
Mar 7 · 6 min read

We need a reset now.

Last week, a group of concerned Torontonians launched #BlockSidewalk: a campaign to stop Sidewalk Toronto, the controversial partnership between Sidewalk Labs (owned by Alphabet and sister company to Google) and tri-government organization Waterfront Toronto to develop a plot of waterfront land in downtown Toronto.

I support #BlockSidewalk not only because I’m worried about the direction this particular project is heading in, but also because I’m concerned about two particularly harmful precedents it will set if we stay on the current track.

The potential negative impacts of these precedents are bigger than any one neighbourhood or any one company.

The site of proposed Sidewalk Toronto project, via CBC

Harmful Precedent 1: Letting a company set policy on data collection, control, and governance in public spaces

Sidewalk Labs said they “hadn’t foreseen” how strongly Canadians would be concerned about how our data is collected and handled. I’ll wager a guess that Waterfront Toronto didn’t foresee this either.

The resulting debate has highlighted the serious policy and legal gaps Canada has when it comes privacy and data governance in today’s digital age.

Government action to address these gaps hasn’t matched the pace of technological change by a long shot, but we’re starting to see movement — due at least in part to the Sidewalk Toronto controversy.

Just last week, Toronto City Council announced a plan to speedily develop a data governance strategy, specifically in response to concerns about Sidewalk Toronto. Councillor Gord Perks said:

“The Sidewalk proposal has alerted us to the fact that we don’t have robust public policy on digital rights and it’s a wake-up call.”

Nathan Phillips Square, in front of Toronto City Hall. Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

The federal government is starting to move as well, most notably through the national digital and data consultations they hosted last year.

Canadians and the governments that represent us have some important decisions to make about data governance. These decisions need to be led by and made in the public interest.

But this is not what will happen if we move forward with the current Sidewalk Toronto arrangement.

In the absence of public leadership and robust legislative protections, we are ceding the power to design Canadian data governance to a company.

We are already seeing Sidewalk Labs step in to fill this void, with their proposal to create a Civic Data Trust to manage data collected in Quayside’s public spaces.

There’s nothing wrong with considering data trusts as an option. What feels wrong is that this is a singular proposal coming from a private company, without leadership from public institutions or space for meaningful public debate.

Personally, I don’t want any company making decisions like this for me or my community — and especially not one owned by the third most valuable conglomerate in the world, which makes the vast majority of its money gathering personal data and using it to sell targeted ads.

Giving a company this kind of power may not even be legal.

This week, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) threatened legal action against Sidewalk Toronto, saying that the project may be violating Canada’s constitution by “outsourcing the public interest to a private company”.

The CCLA called for a reset on the Sidewalk Toronto project, to enable all three levels of government to create data governance protections first. Once those protections are established, a project like this one can begin with far less risk that a company will step in and create policies or precedents that are not their role to create.

Sidewalk Toronto needs to be reset, and begin again when these protections exist.

Harmful Precedent 2: A public advocate seeming to prioritize a corporate partnership over citizen concerns

Waterfront Toronto is “the public advocate and steward of waterfront revitalization”. The agency has a long history of serving this role well.

But the Sidewalk Toronto process has suffered from a lot of confusion over where Waterfront Toronto (our public advocate) ends and Sidewalk Labs (a private company) begins.

I have no doubt many folks within Sidewalk Labs genuinely want to help cities. Yet the fact remains: Sidewalk Labs needs to turn a profit. And this project in Toronto is a chance for them test business strategies and products in order to do just that.

In my opinion, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. In our capitalist society, it’s simply the reality that private companies are profit-motivated. I also think well designed public-private partnerships can play important, catalytic roles in communities and economies.

But I see the (at least perception of) conflation between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs in this project as fundamentally problematic, both from a community engagement perspective (how can citizens effectively engage when even the players aren’t clear?) and from an accountability perspective (how can a public advocate effectively hold a company to account, if the interests of the two are deeply intertwined?)

I don’t see a path for meaningful separation between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs within Sidewalk Toronto’s current form, at this stage of the process.

I think the best way forward is for Waterfront Toronto say “thank you, Sidewalk Labs” and start again when we have clear data governance protections, with a new RFP that bakes in the lessons learned from this experience — including a different approach to collaborating with the winning vendor. I’m even open to the possibility that Sidewalk Labs could win that bid.

But I don’t think we can move forward with this project in its current form without sacrificing the interests of Torontonians, and setting a harmful precedent for ‘smart city’ projects Canada-wide.

Remember: we can say “no”

The project is only at the proposal stage, and the Waterfront Toronto board has the power to pull the plug.

If there was ever a moment to hit ‘reset’ it’s now — the stakes are relatively low, and we have clear lessons learned and a good sense of what needs to be done to make an initiative like this work better in the future.

Saying ‘no’ to this project doesn’t mean saying ‘no’ to innovation or investment in our city.

Toronto’s tech sector is growing steadily (though this growth doesn’t come without its challenges and contradictions) and resetting Sidewalk Toronto isn’t going to change this.

Saying ‘no’ to this project doesn’t mean Torontonians “don’t like change” as Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff has suggested.

It’s not “silly”, as Doctoroff also implied, for citizens to demand that our public interest be protected by the institutions that exist to do so — and to slow down to make that happen, if that’s what’s needed.

I’m certain there are other development projects quietly encountering (and likely ignoring) the issues that make this project so problematic. That’s why this is bigger than Quayside, and bigger than Sidewalk or Google or Alphabet.

I believe that saying ‘no’ to Sidewalk Toronto will in fact make us stronger, by demonstrating that Canadians have the will and the power to demand that development in our cities takes place for us and on our own terms.

If you feel the same, stand up and join the call to #BlockSidewalk today.

Samantha Burton

Written by

the technical is political | Director of Insights @mozilla | she/her | views my own