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Canadian Civil Liberties Association threatens legal action over Sidewalk Toronto

The association is calling on the national, provincial and local governments to put in place digital data governance policies after "adequate" public consultation.

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The development aims to transform Toronto's waterfront. Credit ÔÇô Sidewalk Labs
The development aims to transform Toronto's waterfront. Credit ÔÇô Sidewalk Labs

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has written to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, and Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, asking them to “reset” the smart city quayside development in Toronto.

 

The open letter asks them to “Hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE on Sidewalk Toronto". It continues: "Before bidding and procurement, you must first legislate protections for the people from the risks of surveillance capitalism on our streets.”

 

Sidewalk Toronto is a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Google-owner Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to develop a new kind of mixed-use community on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, beginning with the creation of Quayside.

 

Policies before procurement

 

The letter goes to say that the CCLA, an independent organisation set up in 1964 to defend Canadians’ rights and freedoms, is contemplating litigation in this matter.

 

It states that the "respective governments behave as if unaware that, constitutionally, the emperor has no clothes. Canada needs you to develop the federal, provincial and municipal policies for a smart city (whether at Quayside or elsewhere in Canada) before the procurement process, not after.”

 

The CCLA says that the constitutional problem boils down to “outsourcing the public interest” to a private company without any democratic or legal authority. It calls for all three levels of government to establish digital data governance policies "after adequate public consultation".

 

It argues for a reset of Sidewalk Toronto, rather than scrapping the smart city plan altogether.

 

“A change of course is needed. Ask not what your country can do for technology – ask what technology can do for your country. If you won’t reset through government or by elected assembly, civil society may need to through the courts,” says the letter.

 

"Ask not what your country can do for technology – ask what technology can do for your country"

 

Sidewalk labs says citizens will decide

 

In response to the letter, Sidewalk Labs told SmartCitiesWorld: “This project is for Toronto and it will be up to residents, Waterfront Toronto and all three orders of government to decide if it should go forward.

 

"We strongly disagree with the letter’s mischaracterisation of the public process established by Waterfront Toronto, a public agency, that involves all three orders of government, as well as our work to build a neighbourhood that will significantly improve the lives of people in Toronto.

 

"The distortions in the letter and the threat of a lawsuit may make for good headlines but have no basis in fact or law.”

 

Transparency and data concerns

 

It is the latest in a number of controversies to hit the project.

 

Last year, tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel of Waterfront Toronto because of concerns around personal data, followed by privacy expert, Ann Cavoukian, from her position as advisor to Sidewalk Labs.

 

In February Canada’s National Observer obtained an internal document which it said “raises new questions” about the transparency of Sidewalks Labs planning process. The document suggested that Sidewalk Labs may plan to move into areas beyond the 12-acre Quayside lands. In addition, the documents implied that Sidewalk Labs may seek to take a cut of property taxes and development fees in exchange for financing infrastructure.

 

In a statement referred to in the article, Sidewalk Labs confirmed the internal plans were authentic but said they were out of date and provided fresh proposals.

 

Last month, a group of Toronto citizens launched the Block Sidewalk campaign to try and stop Sidewalk Labs from going ahead with its proposal for the downtown Toronto development.

 

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