Skip to main content
opinion

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is selective with its outrage.

When, in January, a court convicted two Toronto men of willfully promoting hatred in the nasty little paper they produce, Your Ward News, the CCLA’s only response was a blog post saying that using the criminal law against speech can put a chill on free expression. But when it took aim at Sidewalk Labs, the Google offshoot that is helping to develop Toronto’s eastern waterfront, it brought out the blunderbuss.

Executive director Michael Bryant summoned the media this week to announce that the association was suing all three levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – to halt the Quayside project. Waterfront Toronto, the agency that is overseeing development of the area, was also named in the lawsuit.

Mr. Bryant, a former attorney-general of Ontario, said that Sidewalk Labs threatens to compromise the privacy and dignity of city dwellers by collecting their data, turning them into “Google’s lab rat.” The mammoth company, a master of “surveillance capitalism,” is taking its all-seeing eye beyond its search engine and onto our streets.

That, he says, threatens not only our privacy, but our very liberty. Heck, the police could even use Google data on the movement of people in Quayside and beyond to snoop on legitimate public protest. So our freedom of assembly is in danger, too.

For good measure, Mr. Bryant threw in a shot at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had been “seduced by the honeypot of Google’s sparkling brand and promises of political and economic glory” into joining the province and the city to back the project.

It all seemed a bit much. Sidewalk Labs, remember, didn’t just stomp into town wearing cowboy boots. The Smart City proposal came from Waterfront Toronto, which announced it was seeking a partner to develop part of the waterfront using all the latest technologies. The idea was to experiment with new ways of making urban living better – easier, cheaper, cleaner, more sustainable. Sidewalks Labs, a company dedicated to urban innovation, got the nod.

But nothing is final. The partners have yet to sign a firm agreement about how all this is going to happen. All three governments have said they will go over any potential deal with a microscope to make sure privacy rights are safeguarded. Waterfront Toronto has brought in experts to draw up an airtight privacy and data-governance regime. Sidewalk Labs itself says any information gathered in the site should go into an independent data trust.

The near-hysterical fears voiced by Mr. Bryant and other Sidewalk critics rest on a fundamental misunderstanding. Sidewalk doesn’t want to vacuum up your personal data so it can put ads on your feed urging you to buy some company’s sneakers or luggage. It doesn’t want to know about individuals at all. It wants to gather data on how people, in general, behave in urban spaces.

How much energy do they use, what kinds and at what times of day? When and how much do they use their cars and what routes do they take? This information could be used to design more efficient energy and traffic-management systems. Sidewalk, obviously, would like to design some of those systems and make money by selling them.

So, Mr. Bryant is reaching when he says that Sidewalk and, thus, Google will know everything about us – things only our kids, our spouse or our mother would know, “maybe some things we don’t even know about ourselves.” While it is fine to worry about data mining and how digital giants exploit what they gather on us, this project is the wrong target.

The civil liberties association has much more serious threats to tackle; the threat to free speech for one. Its low-key response to the Your Ward News conviction was a sign of the times. At a period of growing concern about the spread of hateful ideas, it is all too easy just to say that some things must never be spoken or written. The CCLA has always stood against that dangerous line of thinking. As that blog post about Your Ward News noted, the association’s late, much-admired general counsel, Alan Borovoy, used to say that haters “should be left to wallow in the obscurity they so richly deserve.” He is much missed.