Sidewalk Labs chief executive officer Dan Doctoroff faced questions from MPs on Tuesday about his company’s business model and its hiring of a top Trudeau government official.
Mr. Doctoroff told the House of Commons access-to-information, privacy and ethics committee on Tuesday that his company, which wants to build a digital community on Toronto’s waterfront, will make money in completely different ways than Google – the internet search giant with which it shares a parent company, Alphabet Inc.
“You have to dismiss the notion that our business model has anything to do with Google’s, because it really has nothing to do with it,” he said. “We have no interest in monetizing personal information.”
Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are in a partnership to explore developing a digitally connected community called Quayside on the city’s eastern lake shore.
In the absence of a complete public plan, critics ranging from tech executives to members of all three levels of government have raised concerns about the proposed project, including its implications for Canadians’ privacy and share of intellectual-property wealth that could come from data generated at the Quayside site.
Mr. Doctoroff said real estate development, infrastructure financing and testing new products like traffic management software will be Sidewalk Labs’ three main revenue sources.
Sidewalk’s head of policy, Micah Lasher, and John Brodhead, a policy-and-strategy staffer who was chief of staff to Amarjeet Sohi when he was infrastructure minister, also spoke to the committee on Tuesday.
Mr. Brodhead helped write the federal Liberal Party’s infrastructure promises during the 2015 election campaign, and when he worked for Mr. Sohi he played a role in the creation of the Canada Infrastructure Bank, a Crown corporation that invests in revenue-generating projects.
A document obtained by The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star showed Sidewalk has been shopping for financing partners for infrastructure at Quayside and possibly in other parts of Toronto’s eastern waterfront, entering into preliminary agreements with private investors and engaging in discussions with the Canada Infrastructure Bank. Sidewalk and the infrastructure bank said Mr. Brodhead had no involvement in their conversations.
In response to questions from opposition MPs, Mr. Brodhead said Sidewalk Labs did not contact him about a possible job until after he had left Mr. Sohi’s office to become chief of staff to Jane Philpott at Indigenous Services. He said he brought the potential job offer to the attention of the federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.
“The office green-lit my ability to accept that offer," Mr. Brodhead said.
NDP MP Charlie Angus said he is concerned by the flow of individuals moving from large foreign-based internet companies like Google to work for the Liberal government while senior Liberal aides like Mr. Brodhead are being hired away to work for companies like Sidewalk Labs.
“They’re not breaching the lobbying rules,” he said after the meeting. “But to me, it’s an unhealthy relationship, and that’s what we need to get to the bottom of.”
Also Tuesday, members of a recently formed group called #BlockSidewalk appeared at Toronto’s city hall to call for greater transparency on the company’s plans for the waterfront. The group includes Saadia Muzaffar, who resigned from a Sidewalk Labs advisory panel over privacy concerns, and open-government advocate Bianca Wylie.
Among the group's concerns is the fact that if the Quayside development goes ahead, Sidewalk could provide some services, such as traffic management, that the city is traditionally responsible for.
Ms. Wylie criticized the possibility, saying that even if people feel municipal government is not working, that should be a call to action instead of a reason to hand over control.
“We are not going to solve those problems by privatizing the government,” she said. “If we do that we’re not going to get the government back. So this is about democracy.”
With a report from Oliver Moore in Toronto