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Report on Business In ethics report, NDP calls on Ottawa to halt Sidewalk Labs commitments pending further consultations

A large lot at the foot of Parliament St. and Queens Quay East, currently being used as a parking lot, is one of the locations for a proposed Sidewalk Labs development project.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The New Democratic Party is using an ethics committee study on privacy to ask the federal government to end any commitments with Google sister-company Sidewalk Labs for its proposed smart-city development on Toronto’s waterfront until a final plan is available.

In a supplemental report to the Commons committee’s study on the privacy of digital government services tabled on Tuesday in the House, the opposition NDP also recommends that Ottawa not commit to any plans for technology-centred communities until Canadians are consulted.

The ethics committee began its study in February, 2018, and in recent months has questioned executives from Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, the public agency that administers the land on Toronto’s eastern lakeshore that Sidewalk wants to use. The proposal is for a community with sensors throughout it gathering data on how people there live, raising questions about how the information would be collected and used.

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The ethics committee heard from the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy last month, as well as social-media companies and critics of Big Tech, including smartphone pioneer Jim Balsillie and early Facebook investor Roger McNamee.

Waterfront Toronto, which represents all three levels of government, announced in October, 2017, that Alphabet Inc.-owned Sidewalk had been selected to develop plans for the land. Sidewalk gave the public agency a draft of the final plan for the 12-acre site called Quayside earlier this week, and is expected to make it public by next Monday.

Critics say details released so far about the business model and privacy implications are inadequate. Sidewalk has promised much of this information will be in the draft plan. Waterfront Toronto will review it and send it for public consultations, after which the agency’s board will vote on whether to proceed.

Charlie Angus, the NDP’s ethics critic, is among those dissatisfied with the amount of information available and helped write the supplemental report. He encouraged Ottawa to end any commitments to the plan and to ask Canadians what they want.

“It is about how these companies interact with public process,” Mr. Angus said in an interview. “If they’re going to be working with cities, they need to pick up their game.”

The report from the multipartisan ethics committee largely focuses on digitizing government services. It asks the federal government to update its privacy laws, including a commitment to minimize data collection or de-identify data collected for research purposes. It also asks for clear rules on consent when government departments exchange information.

The NDP outlined three major concerns with the Quayside project.

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The party sides with Ontario’s Attorney-General, who in a report last December said the six-week response time for the request for proposals was not long enough for all respondents to address the complexities of such a project when other proponents, including Sidewalk, were in touch with Waterfront earlier.

Waterfront executives have said the period was 159 days, although that includes the entire decision process. In an e-mail on Tuesday, spokesman Andrew Tumilty wrote that the Quayside request for proposals was the second-longest such process Waterfront has ever run. He added that Waterfront is pleased the committee acknowledged the agency’s “commitment to the protection of personal information and the measures we will take to ensure the protection of any data collected in the future.”

The NDP also highlights concerns over Waterfront’s board vote to proceed in October, 2017 – which four sources who were not authorized to discuss the decision publicly have told The Globe and Mail was rushed and with insufficient information.

The party’s report also agrees with scholar Shoshana Zuboff’s opinion of letting an Alphabet-owned company plan a community. Ms. Zuboff’s most recent book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, takes aim at Big Tech’s business model of monetizing personal data. “The front line of this war between surveillance capitalism and democracy is being waged in Canada – specifically, in the city of Toronto,” she told the Grand Committee last month.

Mr. McNamee offered a similar comment: “I just don’t believe that any business — not Google, not anybody — should be in the business of operating our public spaces and our civic infrastructure.”

The NDP report says citizens should have a role in the decisions on a project such as Quayside from day one.

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Sidewalk spokeswoman Keerthana Rang said in an e-mail: “This plan is the result of consultation with more than 20,000 Torontonians.”

In an e-mailed statement, the anti-Sidewalk Labs group #BlockSidewalk supported the NDP’s supplemental report. “The last thing we need is for Waterfront Toronto to prolong this flawed process in ways that allows [Sidewalk and Google’s parent company Alphabet] to unload boatloads of cash to further influence decision makers and market its products,” said organizer Thorben Wieditz.

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