Public treated to obfuscation at Waterfront Toronto meeting on negotiations with Google sister company over surveillance district

[Rosemary Frei is an independent journalist who broke the story that Google's Sidewalk Labs had quietly sewn up the rights to turn most of Toronto's lakeshore into a surveilling "smart city" (Google/Sidewalk lied about this at first, were cornered, admitted it, and rolled back the plan). Now she's back with a report on last night's "Public Update on Quayside" meeting, where any hope anyone nursed that Google would be pursuing humane urbanism, rather than surveillance and extraction, were firmly dashed. -Cory]

At Waterfront Toronto's first meeting for the public after its board of directors voted Oct. 31 to continue negotiating with Sidewalk Labs on the parameters of a 12-acre surveillance district, officials from the public agency made it clear they're already wedded to the Google sister company.

The hundreds of attendees of last night's 'Public Update on Quayside' were each given a package that included a copy of an Oct. 29 letter from Waterfront Toronto President and CEO George Zegarac to Sidewalk Labs's Chief Development Officer Josh Sirefman. Zegarac lays out in the letter how the two bodies will work closely together — with Waterfront Toronto taking the lead in on such things as negotiations with all three levels of government – to "develop an 'Innovation Plan' to advance and achieve Waterfront Toronto's priority outcomes." Based on this newly arrived at 'realignment of Master Innovation and Development Plan threshold issues,' Waterfront Toronto's final decision on whether to proceed with the plan will be taken by its board by March 31, 2020.

Members of the public who walked into last night's meeting with a scintilla of hope that Waterfront Toronto officials may still admit it is extremely unwise to bed down with a high-tech giant had that hope dashed. (And it was even further smashed by a November 19 Reuters report quoting key Waterfront Toronto officials as saying they have all the information they need to evaluate Sidewalk Labs's proposal.)

Among the 'pearls' at the November 19 public meeting:

– in response to a question about how Waterfront Toronto can possibly curtail how much information is collected by Sidewalk Labs, Zegarac said they would penalize Sidewalk Labs if it breaches privacy boundaries. Audience member Melissa Goldstein scoffed at the idea of penalties having any effect on Google. Zegarac replied, "I'm just saying what we're trying to do. Nobody's outlawed Google from their country. We need to be realistic about what we can do with this project."

– Meg Davis, Waterfront Toronto's Chief Development Officer, responded to a question about whether the public can evaluate Sidewalk Labs's business plans for Quayside by saying Waterfront Toronto isn't capable of making such an assessment. "Sidewalk Labs is a private company, so I don't know how we would technically evaluate those business models for them," Davis said with a straight face.

– another audience member asked when Waterfront Toronto will file documents to respond to a lawsuit by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association — which the group filed in April 2019, challenging the jurisdiction of Waterfront Toronto in entering such a complex agreement with Sidewalk Labs, and asserting such an agreement violates residents' Charter rights to privacy, liberty and free association — and which is continuing. Zegarac replied, "You know what? We're kind of removed on this one because this is before the courts, so I don't want to get into any details, but we are responding to that, so I'll just leave it at that." Zegarac's response is classic official obfuscation: the truth is that Waterfront Toronto has not yet filed any documents. Instead, Waterfront Toronto's lawyers, whose high bills are footed by taxpayers, are busy keeping the case out of court.

Rosemary Frei is a Toronto-based activist and journalist who enjoys digging into the underbelly of political decision-making.