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?

2. Accessibility review raises new questions.  One Appendix lays out ways the plans (and process) falls short from an accessibility standpoint, asking "who loses when we optimize efficiency?"

3. "Digital restraint" and "surveillance load" remain key questions.  Some panelists remain unconvinced that Sidewalk Labs has adequately considered non-digital approaches and remain concerned about the overall "surveillance load" at the site, "the extent to which individuals’ activities are measured, monitored, or otherwise tracked."

4. Details matter. The devil is in the details - and panelists flag that "details may have been omitted (or are not yet available) which are needed at this approval stage but will only surface once a more detailed “planning proposal”-style document has been prepared."

5. Regulations need to catch up. "Privacy Commissioners at both the provincial and federal levels have called for revisions to their respective laws, and the City of Toronto and provincial and federal governments are all undertaking reviews of and/or consultations on their respective digital strategies. It is clear that the digital governance framework that will apply to the Quayside project – should it move forward – will evolve. The evaluation and approval process needs to take this into account."


The second round of public consultations (and, as far as we know, the last ones before the 5/20/20 Waterfront Toronto Board vote) is happening tomorrow in two sessions at the Westin Harbourcastle Hotel, 1 Harbour Square. Presentations start at 9:30 AM and 2 PM, and last three hours. Feedback can also be sent to [email protected] until 3/31/20.

Questions arising from Wednesday's community meeting:

Speakers and participants in Wednesday night's forum raised a number of questions that have been sidelined in past consultations.  Here are some themes that emerged:

  • Who is protecting the public interest in these dealings?  A Waterfront Toronto committee has now recommended support for 144 Sidewalk Labs proposals to be included in its own innovation plan, which Waterfront Toronto's board will evaluate later this spring. Not only that - the committee recommends Waterfront Toronto lobby its sponsoring governments for regulatory changes and money to support these proposals.  Read more about concerns that Waterfront Toronto has become conflicted: DeCarlo, Desfors & Robertson, "Unmasking the Halloween Agreement."
  • Why are we considering subsidizing a trillion dollar corporation?   Of the 144 proposals on the table, Waterfront Toronto supports funding 11 themselves, and asking other governments to fund 24. The $590 million that Waterfront Toronto will get from selling Quayside? The Financial Post reports much of that is expected to go back into subsidizing some of Sidewalk Labs' proposals
  • Shouldn't public assets be used to address urgent needs, like affordable housing? This update contains no details on affordable housing - possibly THE top issue for Torontonians.
  • Which of these proposals are actually innovations, which are best practices and which are simply required?  Are there other cities, vendors creating the same or better solutions? Do we need Sidewalk Labs to deliver any of them?
  • Is Waterfront Toronto taking the risks of the partnership seriously? When do we measure this approach against other solutions that don't undercut public sector work, compromise our ability to deliver affordable communities or raise the spectre of significant human rights impacts?  If Waterfront Toronto's panel of digital experts has so many concerns about proposed digital solutions, is there still a business case for the partnership?

The public consultation doesn't reflect my concerns/priorities.  Should I go? Yes.  If concerned residents don't turn up, the agency may get the mistaken impression that there are no resident concerns.  Facilitators should make a note of your comments and put them in the record, even if they don't respond to the questions asked.  We will raise concerns in many other ways and forums too.

Stay in touch!  Follow the action on Twitter (@blocksidewalk) or Facebook (@BlockSidewalkTO) in between emails.  Note: our Facebook handle has changed. You can stay abreast of key dates by visiting


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