A new agreement for Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Labs to develop a Toronto neighbourhood has reignited concerns over how the U.S. tech giant will be able to use data generated by Canadians.
Sidewalk has heralded its Quayside neighbourhood proposal as the future of smart, connected cities: a sensor-laden community that would collect data from the citizens living and moving within it to make city living easier, in large part by developing new technologies from that data. But as The Globe and Mail reported in February, because the original agreement had not been made public, few details have been available about how that data would be stored and who would be able to innovate with it.
A new “plan development agreement” released on Tuesday offers many promises about data stewardship and innovation, but few specific details about its implementation, extending long-running frustrations among Canadian innovators.
“As it currently stands, someone experienced in commercialization can drive a truck through the language on IP and data in the new agreement,” said Jim Balsillie, the smartphone pioneer who – as the former Research in Motion Ltd. (now known as BlackBerry Ltd.) co-chief executive and chairman – is one of the most prolific commercializers of IP in Canada’s history. In an e-mail, he continued, "Between Google and [Waterfront Toronto], I think we can guess who is more experienced on matters of IP and data.”
Data sets about how people live and go about the world are becoming recognized as a new natural resource: huge, untapped potential sources of wealth – for those who have access. Some tech leaders in Canada have become deeply concerned that Sidewalk, a corporate cousin of data-hungry Google, might introduce data structures that would hinder Canadians from accessing data here and innovating with it ahead of American competitors.
The original framework agreement with Sidewalk contained little detail on how Waterfront Toronto – and the citizens represented by the three levels of government that run it – would benefit from any intellectual property derived from the project. The new agreement, on the other hand, says the parties recognize the project could be an “economic catalyst for open innovation” and promises to “explore novel forms of data governance,” including an independent trust to manage data generated by the project.
Kurtis McBride, CEO of Kitchener, Ont., traffic-monitoring company Miovision Technologies Inc., raised concerns earlier this year about how projects such as Sidewalk’s Quayside should use non-proprietary, open-data architecture to allow Canadians to innovate with the data generated there.
The new agreement appears designed to recognize such concerns, suggesting the project will “foster the development of global standards for urban digital architectures” and structure its data to encourage open innovation.
Mr. McBride said in an interview on Tuesday the new language is “directionally promising,” but needs more detail, as it leaves open the possibility some proprietary data storage and management would give Alphabet an advantage in innovating with it. (He is now a member of Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory panel, but agreed to speak solely in his position as Miovision CEO.)
“The sooner they can get out of vagueness into specifics, even if it’s couched as a draft, a starting point, an idea, the better,” Mr. McBride said.
Waterfront Toronto, however, insists the agreement with Sidewalk is deliberately structured to focus on broad principles, not specifics, so that details can be determined over time and not rushed.
“It is setting a marker for the relationship between the two as to how intellectual property [rights] will evolve,” said Chantal Bernier, the former interim privacy commissioner of Canada and senior counsel with Dentons LLP who is advising Waterfront Toronto on the project. “This is a principle-based approach that makes sure that Waterfront Toronto secures its rights in relation to this project.”
Sidewalk has said it will not commercialize data generated by the waterfront community, but CEO Dan Doctoroff told The Globe earlier this year the company has not ruled out “ultimately licensing the technology” developed in Toronto as a way to monetize the project.
While the agreement does say that Waterfront Toronto “will seek to ensure that the public is reasonably compensated for the opportunities” the project would generate, Ottawa patent prosecutor Natalie Raffoul warned the language has great potential to leave Canadians in the dust.
“Nothing in this agreement spells out monetization from our own data,” Ms. Raffoul said in an interview. “The benefit to Google is going to be enormous.”
Among the issues she finds concerning include the lack of concrete language around IP co-ownership.
“If Sidewalk Labs' or Google’s engineers are the inventors, the ownership defaults to them, unless you have an agreement that states otherwise. If Google’s grabbing our data from our smart city and we don’t have an agreement in place that we co-own any innovation that comes out of that, the default is Sidewalk Labs owning the innovation from that."