John Tory at SXSW: Sidewalk Labs privacy critics are “rushing to judgment”

Following his talk at the Austin event, the mayor dismissed calls for data privacy protections to be put in place before Toronto proceeds with plans to build a smart city

Austin, Texas – A high-tech smart city planned for Toronto’s east waterfront is facing opposition from critics who say the initiative is more about private data extraction than city-building.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is threatening to sue Sidewalk Toronto, the partnership between Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto proposing the new sensor-filled community, arguing that privacy protections should be spelled out before the project proceeds. The joint venture also wants a cut of property taxes and development fees that would normally go to the city.

Toronto’s Mayor John Tory wasn’t interested in addressing those concerns during a panel on tech investment in Canada at South by Southwest (SXSW) on Sunday, March 10. Tory was in Austin to promote our city as a go-to tech hub while inviting the international audience at SXSW to our upcoming industry events.

As for Sidewalk Toronto, Tory isn’t dismissing it yet – especially if the smart city will result in expediently built transit infrastructure in that area.

“We should want to have that,” says Tory, speaking to NOW later that evening. He added he couldn’t comment on reports that Sidewalks Labs wants a piece of property taxes since a formal proposal hasn’t been submitted.

“Something leaked out that was some sort of document that was floating around their company,” he continued. “And they put in there this concept that they would build transit on their own hook but then get paid back out of future tax revenues. I can’t really comment on that until they put it forward as a formal proposal – if they do.”

Tory explained that Sidewalk Labs’ formal proposal won’t arrive until April, at which time it will be reviewed by Waterfront Toronto and all government levels.

“They’ll decide whether all these propositions, including the question of privacy and protection of data, is adequate or not. If it isn’t, you start over again and you go back and make improvements. If it is, we can proceed knowing that it has strong community support.”

Earlier this month, the CCLA published an open letter to Tory, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Doug Ford calling the smart city initiative “unconstitutional” and insisting that the project be “reset.”

“Hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE on Sidewalk Toronto: before bidding and procurement, you must first legislate protections for the people from the risks of surveillance capitalism on our streets,” the letter states, adding that Waterfront Toronto has become a “Data & Privacy Czar” that is outsourcing “the public interest to a private company without any democratic or legal authority.”

In late February, a group of residents that includes Sidewalk Labs critics Bianca Wylie and Saadia Muzaffar launched an online petition to #BlockSidewalk.

“Right now, what’s happening is some people are rushing to a judgment on the thing, even to the point of saying we should tell them to pack up their bags and go home,” Tory told NOW. “It isn’t one of these false choices people present all the time: either you send them home packing, saying, ‘We have no use for you,’ or you embrace them with open arms and say, ‘You can do anything you want,’ and write them a blank cheque.

“I think there’s a reason to believe that they could put forward something quite exciting for the city. And then our job would be to make sure it meets the public interests.”

For more on the data collection issues surrounding Sidewalk Labs, read our May 2018 cover story on why Torontonians should take control of their data.

Tech and music city?

The mayor spent much of his SXSW panel touting Toronto as a centre for investment and for tech events like the Collision conference and the Elevate festival. 

The panel took place at Canada House, a maple-leaf-bearing pavilion at SXSW. The moderator, Dina Santos, boasted about the $9.1 billion invested in Canadian tech clusters in 2018 alone, inviting representatives from Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto to discuss how our cities are becoming more inviting to established companies and start-ups.

Tory brought up Toronto’s talent pipeline and assistance through Canadian immigration law, where recruits from all over the world not only find a welcoming home in our diverse city but can also be fast-tracked across the border. This was stunning to audiences from Trumpland.

“We can get them in on short notice if they’re needed by companies that are growing in Toronto,” said Tory, who at one point relished the fact that the U.S.’s tight borders make Toronto all the more appealing for companies looking to grow.

He also shouted out Jodi Kovitz, the former lawyer who founded #MoveTheDial, a global movement to encourage women to move into tech spaces. And Tory highlighted efforts to engage marginalized communities in these spaces, admitting that some communities are hearing about all the investment in our city but feeling disenfranchised from it.

“The fact is, a lot of the kids in those communities find it difficult to figure out how to gain access,” said Tory, who spoke about efforts to bring tech employers to isolated communities like Etobicoke’s Somali community to meet face-to-face with the talent there. “They’re smart. They’re eager. They have a great sense of hope and ambition.”

Beyond promoting Toronto, Tory is looking to Austin for inspiration on what our city should do next. He visited SXSW four years ago and observed how a music festival had turned Austin into a hub for comedy, film and tech as well.

“[Tech companies] wanted to be in a place committed to creativity, artistry and music,” Tory told NOW at the Canada House launch party. “They said, ‘Look, we’re here because the kind of people who the music scene attracts are the kind of people we need to hire.'”

Tory didn’t mention specifics beyond finding ways to support festivals that showcase our music scene and realize local dreams for a Music City. He is hoping to foster more collaboration between our festivals, like NXNE, Elevate and Luminato, to create the kind of synergy between arts and innovation in Toronto that made Austin a tech destination.

With files from Kevin Ritchie


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