Privacy Commissioner warns Waterfront Toronto about Sidewalk Labs overreach


Last week, the province's privacy watchdog contacted Waterfront Toronto to raise new red flags about the Sidewalk Labs project.  

“The digital governance proposals set out in the [Sidewalk proposal] raise several concerns, including: a lack of independent public oversight, a cumbersome mandate that overlaps with that of my office and the federal Privacy Commissioner, and an insufficient role for the City given its experience delivering municipal services in the public interest,” Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish wrote in a letter to Waterfront Toronto's chair, according to a Globe and Mail report.

Waterfront Toronto has been hearing a stream of consistent warnings about the proposal this month, from its own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel to feedback from this summer's public consultations.  Waterfront Toronto has set a deadline of October 31st for the company to address "certain foundational issues that need to be resolved before we invest in a full evaluation."

Image: Friends of Canadian Broadcasting hosts a discussion about the impact of Big Tech on Canadian Democracy, 9/25



This week, we will send out questionnaires to candidates for Federal office in ridings in or near the Quayside site, including Spadina-Fort York, Toronto-Danforth, Beaches-East York and Toronto Centre.  We have asked candidates to answer the following questions, and will share what we learn with all of you:

  1. Are you in favour, against, or undecided regarding the Sidewalk Labs proposal for our Toronto waterfront?
  2.  Have you had discussions with Sidewalk Labs, Google or Alphabet since 2016? How many times and on what topics?
  3. Do you believe it is important for our governments to protect people with strong, modern, privacy and data governance laws before a plan that proposes widespread data collection on our city streets is evaluated or approved?
  4. Sidewalk Labs has responded to Waterfront Toronto’s RFP for a 12-acre site with a proposal for 190 acres of publicly owned waterfront land. Do you believe it's appropriate for the agency to entertain proposals for public assets that have not been put out for bidding?
  5. In the US, 50 state attorneys-general are attempting to break up Alphabet to reduce its market power. Do you think helping Alphabet gain a foothold in Canada makes sense in this context? Why or why not?
  6. While Waterfront Toronto has the initial power to move the project forward, ultimately all three levels of government will be consulted before it finally is approved. If elected, what will you do to protect constituents’ interests and rights in relation to the Sidewalk Labs smart city project?


It promises to be a packed week of action on Big Tech in Toronto.

Tuesday, October 1: Do you know friends and neighbours who want to learn more about the Sidewalk Labs controversy?  Consider inviting them to an upcoming forum hosted by Good Jobs for All: "Update on Google’s plan for our waterfront … and what it means for the future of our city." 5:30-8:30, 25 Cecil St. (Steelworkers Hall).  Speakers will include: Councillor Paula Fletcher (Ward 14), Jack Poulson (Tech Inquiry), Kumsa Baker (Toronto Community Benefits Network), Alejandra Ruiz Vargas (Acorn), Nigel Bariffe (Urban Alliance on Race Relations).  Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 3: Please keep an eye on our Twitter feed as we boost tech-related actions happening in the city: @blocksidewalk

Friday, October 4: Come see three short films, "Public Service Announcements" on the Sidewalk Labs proposal by Toronto artist and #BlockSidewalk supporter Zeesy Powers, screened at Not My Utopia, via @EthicsAILab at U of T and Ryerson @RyersonIMA. 

If you have initiatives you'd like us to share, let us know:


In honour of a week of global climate strikes, we're re-posting an important article from February of this year:

Brian Merchant, "How Google, Microsoft and Big Tech are automating the climate crisis." Gizmodo, February 21, 2019.


This week's top critical news:

Blayne Haggart, "Federal leaders should face tough questions about Toronto's smart city project,", September 23, 2019.

Julia Carrie Wong, "Google upended Pittsburgh, but will the city's working class roots transform the tech industry?" The Guardian, September 23, 2019.

"What's fueling the smart-city backlash?" University of Pennsylvannia/Wharton School of Business, September 24, 2019.

Ryan Deto, "Pittsburgh Google contractors vote to form union with United Steelworkers." Pittsburgh City Paper, September 24, 2019.

Evgeny Morozov, "Digitale Stadt [Digital City]," Keynote address, Wien Waechst, September 25, 2019 [see 6:25 for comments on Sidewalk Labs]

Donovan Vincent, "Sidewalk Labs' urban data trust is "problematic," says Ontario privacy commissioner," Toronto Star, September 26, 2019.

Jeff Gray, Josh O'Kane and Rachel Younglai, "Sidewalk Labs Toronto project lacks independent oversight, has insufficient public role, privacy watchdog says," Globe and Mail, September 26, 2019.

Remington Tonar, Ellis Talton, "Why Sidewalk Labs' Toronto plan is flawed." Forbes, September 26, 2019.

Makena Kelly, "Elizabeth Warren wants to hire an army of nerds to defeat Google's lobbyists; "Our representatives shouldn't have to rely on Google's policy team." The Verge, September 27, 2019.

Siobhan O'Flynn, "We street-proof our kids. Why aren't we data-proofing them?" The Conversation, September 29, 2019.

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