Law Street Media

Alphabet’s Smart City Plans Move Forward in Toronto Despite Controversies

Sidewalk Labs is collaborating with Waterfront Toronto, a publicly funded organization in the Canadian city, to create a proposal for a smart neighborhood in Toronto. Sidewalk Labs is owned by Google parent company Alphabet. The proposal for the smart neighborhood is a bid for a redevelopment project called Quayside. Sidewalk Labs bid for the right to create a proposal in early 2017. They won the bid in October and shared a document outlining their vision for the neighborhood.

Sidewalk’s Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) was developed and submitted this summer. During its development Sidewalk attempted to determine if all elements of its original proposal were feasible. The original proposal included plans for eco-friendly building materials and a system of sensors that would track noise, traffic, and pollution in the neighborhood. Privacy concerns about the data collection were quickly raised. A Sidewalk privacy expert quit because the proposal did not meet her standards. An independent trust would be monitoring and analyzing the data and Sidewalk said it could not force them to anonymize the data.

The MIDP was supposed to come out in June 2018, but the release date was moved to the following spring. Sidewalk Labs published the first draft of the MIDP in June 2019. In a not unforeseen wrinkle, Sidewalk’s proposal included plans that extended beyond the land designated for the Quayside redevelopment project. Waterfront Toronto suggested several adjustments to the plan including narrowing the focus back on Quayside and doing more research on how the independent data trust would function, worrying that there may be legal barriers. Sidewalk agreed to all the proposed adjustments.

In April, before the new proposal had been formally made, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association sued the Canadian government at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels in response to the smart city plans. The suit aimed for the court to invalidate the agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. The CCLA’s lawsuit claimed that agreements made between Sidewalk and Waterfront were beyond Waterfront’s authority to make and invalid. It also states that Waterfront Toronto, the City of Toronto, the providence of Ontario, and Canada “violated Canadians’ personal and collective privacy rights.” The CCLA’s concern was that much of the surveillance inherent in the plans for Quayside would require consent under Canadian law, and that such consent cannot be adequately obtained from all the residents of the smart city. It also raised concerns about the theoretical implications of such monitoring practices, such as the power it could have over people’s rights to assembly.

While plenty of smart innovations have been executed on city-wide scales before this Quayside project, this proposal gives a lot more control to a singular entity over the smart development of a city than previous projects. Waterfront has been insistent that Sidewalk Labs will have to partner with outside real estate developers rather than do the developing themselves and that in so far as they will do any developing, they will have to bid like everyone else. Waterfront also said it would be taking charge of the issues related to privacy and expressly stated that Sidewalk Labs cannot require the existence of an independent data trust as part of the MIDP.

One of the aims of Sidewalk’s proposal is to create a carbon-neutral neighborhood, but the Canadian public and lawmakers are continuing to show concerns about the project. Some innovations will allow for more affordable housing to be built faster and for Wi-Fi to be available to everyone, but the monitoring system continues to generate controversy.

The Quayside project is entering a new phase of development now that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have come to an agreement on the MIDP. This new phase includes Waterfront bringing the agreement to the public before they make their final judgment, which is scheduled for March 31, 2020.

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