The Fight Against Google’s Smart City


Brian Barth is a journalist based in Toronto.

TORONTO — Behind a cloak of shrubbery in a gritty Toronto neighborhood lies a brick duplex, the home of Bianca Wylie, a 39-year-old mother of two on a mission to upend big tech’s latest pet project: “smart” cities. In a living room office overflowing with books and baby toys, Wylie settles into an armchair and unspools the story of how she found herself up against the mother of all Internet companies.

In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs, a Google-affiliated company looking to make urban life more streamlined, economical and green by infusing cities with sensors and data analytics, announced plans to build the world’s first neighborhood “from the Internet up” on 12 acres of the Toronto waterfront, an area known as Quayside. Sidewalk aims to, for example, build an “advanced microgrid” to power electric cars, design “mixed-use” spaces to bring down housing costs, employ “sensor-enabled waste separation” to aid recycling and use data to improve public services.

The company’s long-term vision is to expand to the adjacent Port Lands, a valuable 800-acre tract of industrial waterfront. And from there, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a press conference to unveil the project, to “other parts of Canada and around the world.” Quayside will be “a testbed for new technologies,” Trudeau declared in rousing tones. “Technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities.” The media was then treated to a series of utopic renderings of a futuristic neighborhood featuring driverless buses, green-roofed condos and carefree childrenrunning barefoot amid butterflies.

Wylie, however, has zero tolerance for smart city PR-speak. “The smart city industry is a Trojan horse for technology companies,” she told The WorldPost. “They come in under the guise of environmentalism and improving quality of life, but they’re here for money.”

Wylie’s resume is filled with positions in IT, government consultancies and corporate development. More recently, she’s worked part-time as a professor while volunteering for various “open data” and “civic tech” initiatives. Last November, she launched Tech Reset Canada (TRC) with three other activist-entrepreneurs — all women.

The group describes itself as “pro-growth” and “pro-innovation” but questions whether a top-down smart city project by an American tech behemoth is really in the best interests of Toronto’s citizens. “This is a story about governance, not urban innovation,” Wylie said. “There is nothing innovative about partnering with a monopoly.”

TRC’s founders are not opposed to the concept of smart cities in principle. Their concerns revolve around the collection and commodification of urban data and whether that occurs through a democratic process or via corporate fiat.

As it is, technological innovation has far outpaced lawmakers’ ability to establish the rules of the road, whether in the context of Google and Facebook’s immensely profitable endeavor to commodify Internet browsing activity or Internet-connected assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, which eavesdrops on your every conversation while awaiting your commands. But critics of the smart city industry say that it brings the disconnect between policy and digital intrusions on privacy to another level.

Sidewalk’s vision for Quayside — as a place populated by self-driving vehicles and robotic garbage collectors, where the urban fabric is embedded with cameras and sensors capable of gleaning information from the phone in your pocket — certainly sounds Orwellian. Yet the company contends that the data gathered from fully wired urban infrastructure is needed to refine inefficient urban systems and achieve ambitious innovations like zero-emission energy grids.

But so far, the virtual world has been something we opt into — giving up various rights in the terms of service agreements we hastily click closed — and can opt out of if we so choose. It’s one thing to willingly install Alexa in your home. It’s another when publicly owned infrastructure — streets, bridges, parks and plazas — is Alexa, so to speak. There’s no opting out of public space, or government services, for which Sidewalk Labs appears eager to provide an IT platform. An integral component of the proposal for Quayside is an identity management system: a “portal through which each resident accesses public services,” whether library cards, drivers’ license renewals or healthcare.

Who will own the data streaming from sensors in every park bench, lamppost and dumpster in Quayside? No one at Sidewalk Labs, nor in local government, has given a straight answer to that question yet.

Wylie doesn’t see it as a topic for debate. “Data produced by the public should be publicly owned and managed transparently,” she said. “A lot of the urban problems that smart-city projects propose to address don’t require a technological solution. Toronto’s affordable housing crisis isn’t going to be solved with more data — it’s political will that’s lacking.”

When the Internet became dominated by smartphones and social media, the social contract with big tech seemed fairly durable: companies provide useful services at shockingly low prices or for free in exchange for a steady drip of information about our lives that, when collected en masse, has commercial value. But this arrangement appears to be up for a revision. An Axios poll in February found that 55 percent of Americans were concerned that the government was not doing enough to regulate the tech industry, up from 40 percent who felt that way just three months earlier. The industry still enjoys high favorability ratings overall, though this too is waning. Each of the five biggest tech companies have lost points since last fall, Google down by 12 points to 64 percent favorable, Amazon down by 13 points to 59 percent, and Facebook down by 28 points to 5 percent.

At a Toronto City Council meeting in January, Wylie delivered a deputation asking local officials to take steps to “ensure that the data and data infrastructure of this project are the property of the city of Toronto and its residents.” She also demanded greater transparency around the project as a whole.

When the Quayside project was announced last year, the terms of the contract between the company and Waterfront Toronto, a government-created agency that has partnered with Sidewalk to develop Quayside, were not made public. This was because they included “commercially sensitive provisions,” reporters were told at the time. (Neither Sidewalk Labs nor Waterfront Toronto accommodated interview requests for this article.)

City councilor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the only elected official on the Waterfront Toronto board of directors (and thus privy to the contract), has urged his fellow councilors to intervene. “I know enough about the agreement that I think you would like to know more about the agreement,” he said.

Since the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal blew open in March, Sidewalk’s critics — a motley coalition of Canadian academics, privacy activists, business leaders and bureaucrats — have begun to control the conversation about Quayside.

Wylie has become the movement’s de facto leader. The ad hoc campaign that started in her living room last fall has taken her from closed-door meetings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to a fellowship at a think tank established by one of the co-creators of BlackBerry, who called Wylie “a hero.” Her pithy blog posts aim to keep Sidewalk’s “boil-the-ocean hubris,” as she puts it, in check, while the company’s representatives go about the city preaching the virtues of their plan. “New drum to bang from here on out: no,” she wrote in one post.

By spring, the public’s relationship with Sidewalk had grown tense.

On May 1, in an apparent effort to respond to its critics, Sidewalk Labs released a Responsible Data Use Policy Framework, which states that the company “will not sell personal information to third parties or use it ourselves for advertising purposes.” On the surface, this would seem to assuage the public’s worst fears. But to the data-literate, it’s a fairly hollow promise because it leaves open the option of selling or otherwise commercializing anonymized, aggregate data — which is subject to its own perils and can be un-anonymized by malicious actors. And besides, Facebook didn’t sell its users’ personal information to Cambridge Analytica. The data was made available — a key distinction — through an API that any web developer would have had access to.

On May 2, a local tech entrepreneur named Marc de Pape published a blog post that gave a critical account of his experience being interviewed for a position in Sidewalk Labs’ “city services department.” De Pape withdrew his candidacy, citing philosophical differences that became apparent during the interview. It was the final question — “how voting might be different in the future” — that made his stomach turn. “I was shocked and offended by the question as a Canadian … how blindly ambitious do you have to be as a private American company to even imply that our public voting systems are within your mandate?”

On May 3, The WorldPost attended a town hall-style meeting for the project, one of many public relations events that have been held since October, at which residents were invited to give input. In previous meetings, the presentation had focused on cutting-edge technology but now seemed more about convincing attendees that Toronto would not become a “dystopian technocapitalist hellscape,” as New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recently described big tech’s pivot to city-building. A tone of defensiveness, if not annoyance, pervaded the question-and-answer session that followed, during which attendees raised thorny questions about how their data would be used.

During the event, Wylie tweeted her disappointment about an announcement Sidewalk Labs made from the stage: that long-promised details about their plan would be delayed several more months. Micah Lasher, Sidewalk’s head of policy and communications, shot back on Twitter while the meeting was still in progress: “Except, no, that’s not what was said. No matter how much you want to rush this process, we are going to continue to be deliberative.” (But a video of the event shows that is what was said.)

Surprised, Wylie approached him about the disagreement. During their exchange, Lasher characterized her activism as disingenuous and motivated by personal gain. Through a representative, Lasher acknowledged the exchange but maintained that his words and tone were “appropriate.” A Sidewalk spokesperson who was also present insisted that “all ended amicably.” The feeling wasn’t mutual. Wylie and a fellow activist who was present during the interaction described the conduct as an effort to intimidate.

The tech industry’s “move fast and break things” culture — as Mark Zuckerberg famously, or perhaps, infamously, put it — tends not to take kindly to laws, institutions and individuals that get in the way. If the Toronto region is to become “Silicon Valley North,” as local boosters have long branded it, Wylie would prefer that such arrogance be left at the border.

“Sidewalk Labs faces a number of political minefields, as I see it,” said city councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam when The WorldPost reached her by phone. “I don’t want to shut the project down, but the more that they don’t answer critical questions … [the more] they’re going to erode their social currency.”

Following three high-profile resignations at Waterfront Toronto in July, the government-created agency took pains to rescue their image. The contract with Sidewalk Labs was finally made public, but it has also been rendered null and void by a newly published agreement that puts the company on a much shorter leash. Where the original agreement gave Sidewalk broad latitude as the “master developer,” all but handing over the keys to the 800-acre Port Lands, the new version hands the reins back to the government and makes it clear that, at least for now, the 12 acres at Quayside are all that’s being promised.

On issues of privacy and data governance, the first agreement was largely silent, while the new version states that the project will move forward under “the most privacy protected/citizen-centered set of policies and governance structures in the world, recognizing privacy as a fundamental human right.”

“It’s a win for Waterfront Toronto because they walked back a really bad deal,” said Wylie, who sees the government-created agency taking back control after overly accommodating Sidewalk. “But it’s not a win to me as a member of the public because we are now just more entrenched in this.” She’s not impressed with the lofty claims about privacy, either. “That’s advertising language. Tacking ‘human rights’ on at the end doesn’t change that. We need to change our laws to reject surveillance capitalism as a social norm.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.