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Digital panel flags significant concerns with Sidewalk Labs plan

A warm thank you to all who came out on a snowy Wednesday, to the many thoughtful speakers, and to the co-hosts of the meeting: Acorn, Good Jobs for All, Climate Justice TO and Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.


Waterfront Toronto's Digital Strategy Advisory Panel has released a new report on Sidewalk Labs' digital proposals, and "they aren't confident the resulting data collection and surveillance risk would be justified," reports the Globe and Mail

The report can provide needed context and background to help understand the digital proposals Waterfront Toronto has said it supports in its latest Sidewalk Labs update.  Key take-aways:

1. We need to evaluate the risks of the partnership.  An entire Appendix is devoted to the risks of the partnership - a question BlockSidewalk supporters have kept trying to put back on the table.  The Appendix asks five questions; for the first four, the appendix suggests, the answer is "no."

  • Does Sidewalk have a strong track record as an urban innovator appropriate for Toronto?
  • Can Sidewalk Labs’ core claims be relied on?
  • What does experience with Sidewalk to date in this project indicate about its reliability as a partner? In particular, has Sidewalk respected its contracts and other commitments?
  • Can Sidewalk be treated as independent of its parent Alphabet/Google and its wider enterprise?
  • What are the risks of partnering with an Alphabet enterprise?
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Waterfront Toronto releases "menu" of Sidewalk Labs proposals it supports for 2/29 consultations

Earlier this week, Waterfront Toronto released new materials on its deal with Sidewalk Labs.

These materials index 144 projects that Waterfront Toronto's evaluation committee supports, from Sidewalk Labs' 1500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan. 

In other words, Waterfront Toronto has selected items from a menu that Sidewalk Labs has created.

Other choices do not appear on the menu.  There is no option to pursue development with other (local) vendors, for example, to explore public or not for profit paths to accomplish the same goals, or to take development in a different direction altogether -  even though contractually, Waterfront Toronto is under no obligation to pursue any proposal made by Sidewalk Labs, and is free to pursue any ideas proposed with other vendors. 

Consent - never on the menu.

On February 29th, Waterfront Toronto's CEO says "he’d like public feedback on which ideas from Sidewalk Labs should be the highest priority."

Yet again, the consultation skips over critical questions -  that part of the process where residents get to decide whether we want this deal (or this partner) at all.  It didn't happen when the RFP for Quayside was designed.  It didn't happen when the proponent was selected.  It didn't happen during the last round of public consultations. 

Is it now too late for these questions? Was there ever a good time?  What a boon for Sidewalk Labs and its parent, Alphabet!  At a time when U.S. and E.U. officials are attempting to break up Alphabet's monopoly power, in Toronto, its subsidiary is handed a platform that could give the tech giant an edge in the burgeoning market for digital infrastructure and "smart city" tech. 

Public money - definitely back on the menu!

The new materials helpfully indicate where Waterfront Toronto will help lobby for regulatory change and public funding.  In 24 cases, Waterfront Toronto will advocate for funds from the three levels of government.  In 11 cases, Waterfront Toronto will itself provide funding.  How much funding? In an interview with the Financial Post, Waterfront Toronto CEO George Zegarac "said he expects to put most of the $590 million generated by selling the land for the proposed development back into affordable housing and other services for the new neighbourhood."

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Save the date: Join community groups on 2/26 to call on elected representatives to intervene in Sidewalk Labs affair

Waterfront Toronto recently announced its board vote on the Sidewalk Labs plan has been pushed back to May 20th, "to allow the public more time to offer input into Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation of Sidewalk Lab’s proposals for Quayside." To date, only one date for public consultation has been announced: February 29th at the Westin Harbourcastle Hotel.

We aren't waiting. 

On February 26th, several community groups have called a meeting, inviting elected representatives to hear directly from residents about new and ongoing concerns with the Sidewalk Labs affair, and a call to intervene in the public interest. 

Please join ACORN, Good Jobs for all, Climate Justice Toronto, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, BlockSidewalk and many others on February 26, 6:30 PM, at St. Paul's on Bloor (Great Hall), 227 Bloor St. East.  You can RSVP/register here.

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January 18, 2019: Take action to stop corporate capture!

We are two and a half months out from Waterfront Toronto's board vote on what remains of the Sidewalk Labs proposal for Quayside.  What's new?

We ended 2019 with community members expressing concern that Waterfront Toronto continues to have conflicting roles, helping create, advocating for and evaluating the Sidewalk Labs proposal for Quayside (a proposal which remains frustratingly murky).  Waterfront Toronto staff are scrambling to address these and other community concerns, while the City of Toronto forges ahead to develop new policies around technology and data collection.  Decision-makers say these policies won't be ready in time for the evaluation of Sidewalk Labs' proposal, which features an unprecedented density of data-collecting sensors. Our year starts off with a call to action around this clear case of corporate capture (see below).

Meanwhile, the courts will begin to hear Waterfront Toronto's motion to dismiss the Canadian Civil Liberties Association lawsuit, which could shut down the entire Quayside deal. MPPs grilled Waterfront Toronto about the controversial process it used to grant the Quayside Project to Sidewalk Labs at the Public Accounts Committee in December, and have asked the agency to produce additional evidence for their review (stay tuned). For their part, Sidewalk Labs/Google have resumed intensive lobbying at City Hall. 

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December 1, 2019: Who's in charge?

UPDATE: Who's in charge, continued: Waterfront Toronto - Sidewalk Labs partnership remains murky

Image credit: Waterfront Toronto

On November 19th, Waterfront Toronto held a public briefing to update community members on the Sidewalk Labs project, following the "realignment" of October 31st.  Audience members, visibly frustrated, called for clarity over what, exactly, Sidewalk Labs currently proposed for Quayside, and whether Waterfront Toronto's role was to be co-author, advocate or evaluator of the plan (or a combination of all). 

A distrust of Sidewalk Labs, Google and Alphabet was again on display, with one audience member asking whether Google's recent grab of personal health information of millions of Americans, without the consent or knowledge of patients or physicians, wasn't enough to "cancel the plan."

Since October 31st, Sidewalk Labs has resumed an aggressive PR plan that appears to circumvent its public sector partner.  The company released its digital innovation appendix to the Toronto Star after missing a deadline to submit the plan to Waterfront Toronto's panel of digital experts.  It has begun announcing investments and initiatives seemingly conditional on Waterfront Toronto's approval of the plan, including a small venture fund and a partnership with a community college.

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November 18, 2019: Two questions for Waterfront Toronto briefing


Waterfront Toronto will hold a briefing to update members of the public on the Quayside development tomorrow night, 6-9 pm, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.  The event will be live-streamed, but if you attend in person, you'll be able to ask questions. Here are two questions we think need to be asked.

1. What is the plan for Quayside?  With Sidewalk Labs' June plan off the table (possibly), what exactly is moving forward for evaluation?  Will Waterfront Toronto commit to evaluating a definitive proposal, or will we keep having to chase a moving target?

2. Is Waterfront Toronto the author of the plan or the evaluator?  Will Sidewalk Labs help write the rules that will apply to them?  While Waterfront Toronto's Chair has asserted the agency is back in charge of the development process, we haven't seen amendments to the legal document governing the relationship between the parties (the "Plan Development Agreement").  In fact, the letter outlining the details of the realignment suggests the lines remained blurred, with Waterfront Toronto collaborating on an Innovation Plan it will later evaluate (p. 2), and Sidewalk Labs accorded a role in the development of standards and guidelines that will apply to its proposals (p.3). 


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October 31st: What's next for Quayside?

On October 31, Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs was put back in its place.

We are no longer talking about a sprawling 190 acre proposal, a new Waterfront "public administrator" or an "urban data trust." Sidewalk Labs is, more or less, back where they started: proposing a vision for the 12-acre Quayside site.  This outcome required a concerted and sustained effort by civil society - not just a single master negotiator. 

While the October 31 “realignment” seems to have turned the tables and put the tri-government agency back in charge, however, our enthusiasm remains cautious.  We need to see that problematic clauses in the partnership agreement governing the relationship between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto (the Plan Development Agreement (PDA)) have been amended or removed. We need to see what plan, exactly, is going forward for further public consultation.

Torontonians should not have had to go to such lengths.  Having witnessed Sidewalk Labs' behaviour over the last two years, we remain convinced this vendor is not the right partner to develop Toronto's waterfront.  Yet company spokespeople have said that Sidewalk Labs needs to scale up beyond Quayside, both to prove its concepts and to make a return on its investment.  Our work is not done.

Read Waterfront Toronto's public statement on the October 31st "realignment" here; read the full text of the amendments to the Project Development Agreement here.


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Over 100 Torontonians concerned about Sidewalk Labs send Open Letter to Waterfront Toronto

Image credit: Michele Champagne

100+ Toronto-area organizations, residents concerned about Sidewalk Labs deliver letter to Waterfront Toronto Board, Management.

Yesterday, over 100 Toronto-area residents sent a letter regarding the proposed Sidewalk Labs development to Waterfront Toronto.  Initiated by #BlockSidewalk, the letter quickly snowballed to include a wide range of signatories, including tech workers, architects and artists; academics, labour organizers and entrepreneurs; residents engaged on transit, climate justice, decent work, human rights and equitable development; and residents who live and work on the waterfront and across the city. 

The letter asks Waterfront Toronto to commit to full public disclosure in its ongoing dealings with Sidewalk Labs, as the closed-door negotiations leave basic questions - including how much publicly-owned land is involved in the deal - unanswered. Unlike the pro-Sidewalk Labs letter signed by "30 civic leaders" in July, signatories have had the chance to digest the proposals contained in Sidewalk Labs' 1500+ page proposal, and the extent to which they far exceed the terms of Waterfront Toronto's RFP for the 12-acre Quayside site.

If you wish to add your name before the final copy of the letter is delivered on Thursday, please send your name and preferred affiliation and a request to "add my name to the 10/28/19 Open Civic letter to Waterfront Toronto" to BlockSidewalk@Protonmail.com


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BlockSidewalk letter to Waterfront Toronto's Board

To:      The members of Waterfront Toronto’s Board of Directors
CC:     Mayor John Tory

In July, a group of “30 civic leaders” in Toronto added their names to a public letter circulated by the Toronto Regional Board of Trade (TRBOT), aided by Sidewalk Labs, calling for Torontonians to support the Sidewalk Labs proposal. The letter reduced concerns with the project to “details” around “data governance…and a final path to rapid transit financing.”

Torontonians’ concerns about Sidewalk Labs’ proposed test bed on public waterfront land, however, move well beyond “details,” and by the time TRBOT published its letter, expressions of concern had already outnumbered expressions of unreserved support by a large margin. 

#BlockSidewalk, a community campaign to make sure that the Eastern waterfront is developed in the public interest, has collected and curated a number of concerns articulated publicly by Toronto-area residents and organizations, written in their own words and made public at their own behest.  The authors speak from a wide range of different perspectives, walks of life and political persuasions, but all evidence thoughtfulness, care and a commitment to the future of our city. 

You can access the document here: A tapestry of concerns: Public statements by 65+ Toronto-area individuals and organizations on Sidewalk Labs’ proposed test-bed neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront.

As you prepare to make one of the most important decisions in Waterfront Toronto's history, we want to make sure you keep these voices in mind.

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