Sidewalk Labs update: Waterfront vote delayed, new public funds needed, critics turn to Digital Charter

Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs’ plans to develop Toronto’s Quayside neighbourhood are expected to experience a new three-month delay. The project requires new public funding for external consultants, and critics of the project are turning their attention to the federal government’s Digital Charter, with some saying the charter does not go far enough to quell data privacy concerns that have long plagued Sidewalk Labs. Here’s the latest on Canada’s high-profile development project.

Waterfront vote delayed at least 3 months

The vote will determine whether Waterfront Toronto goes forward with Sidewalk Labs’ development plan

A report from Tracey Cook, deputy city manager of Toronto, released this week, has found the Quayside project may be delayed by at least three months. A vote by Waterfront Toronto’s board of directors on the project, slated for September, is likely to be postponed by sometime in December or January. Both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs must give the green light to the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP).

Waterfront Toronto is a partnership between the City of Toronto and the provincial and federal governments, charged with overseeing the Quayside development. The development plan will determine whether Waterfront Toronto goes forward with the plan proposed by Google-parent Alphabet’s urban development arm.

Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Tumilty told The Canadian Press the delay will enable the board to conduct a “full, thorough, and extensive evaluation process” of the development plan Sidewalk Labs will submit later this month. At Collision Conference in May, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said he intends for Sidewalk Labs to be involved in the Waterfront area as an investor, developer, and advisor over the next 20 years.

$800,000 needed to hire new staff

The Globe and Mail reported Cook also determined that $800,000 of public money is needed to oversee the creation digital infrastructure and data governance.

According to the Toronto Star, the $800,000 needed would include payment for consultants who would be responsible for overseeing “a public and stakeholder engagement process,” focused on creating on the project’s master plan. The report also said the city’s information and technology division will need to onboard a consultant determine “precedents and best practices” around digital infrastructure, such as broadband and cellular networks, or facilities and platforms that store data.

The funding would also go toward money for a city clerk consultant to assist Toronto with data governance and privacy protection guidelines and provide “a foundational framework” of data privacy rules. Sidewalk Labs has proposed to establish an independent civic data trust which would create rules around data use. This would make its data collection activity open to the public, while offering privacy protection to ensure Sidewalk Labs does not obtain an exceptional status when it comes to accessing data. Regardless, data privacy has long been a controversial issue for the Alphabet company.

RELATED: Sidewalk Labs CEO defends “real-time” planning process in front of House ethics committee

In the report, Cook addressed concerns about the project, including the revelation that Sidewalk Labs was planning to develop an area nearly 30 times larger than its original 12-acre Quayside proposal, equipped with underground infrastructure and an LRT.

Digital Charter is just ‘talk’: critics

Last month, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, revealed the federal government’s new Digital Charter looking to combat hate speech, misinformation, and online electoral interference. Some critics, like Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology, and surveillance project of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, are now saying new Digital Charter does not go far enough to protect the citizens against potential abuses of data.

In April, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit against all three levels of government and Waterfront Toronto, all of which are overseeing the development of Sidewalk Labs, seeking to abolish Sidewalk Labs’ partnership agreement with Waterfront Toronto.

“What’s lacking is the solid legal safeguards to the extent that our government is committed to addressing data protection going forward,” she said to Reuters. “Giving people more control over their data is something the Digital Charter promised, and is a part of how we control our private information, but it’s not efficient as privacy protection.”

Ann Cavoukian, former information and privacy commissioner of Ontario, who resigned as privacy advisor for Sidewalk Labs in 2018, told Reuters the Digital Charter “is intended to provide comfort to citizens of Canada regarding privacy, but it’s talk.”

Image courtesy Sidewalk Labs

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle is a Vancouver-based writer with 5+ years of experience in communications and journalism and a lifelong passion for telling stories. For over two years, she has reported on all sides of the Canadian startup ecosystem, from landmark venture deals to public policy, telling the stories of the founders putting Canadian tech on the map.

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