When Sidewalk Labs and Toronto signed a deal to allow the Google spinoff to develop a 12-acre parcel of underused land on the city's waterfront back in October, technologists and urbanists were breathless with excitement. Both groups spun mesmerizing tales of a tech-enabled futuropolis complete with robo trash collectors, self-driving cars, and environmentally friendly everything. Who wouldn't hail such a sci-fi vision?
"This project will become a model for others not only in Canada, but around the world," enthused Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at the time.
But now, mere months after the agreement was signed, a chorus of critics is already raising a host of concerns over privacy, transparency, public control, and the financial soundness of the deal struck by Toronto.
It's a great deal, but no, you can't see it
The most basic criticism dogging the nascent project is lack of transparency. For all the fanfare accompanying the deal's announcement, one thing was markedly absent from the presentation -- the complete text of the agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, the nonprofit created to develop the parcel.
"Waterfront Toronto's refusal, for what it says are 'commercial reasons,' to release the text of the preliminary 'agreement to agree' it signed in the fall with Sidewalk has led to accusations of excessive secrecy," reports The Globe and Mail, which also notes that "despite briefings from Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk executives, some city councilors say they still have little idea what Sidewalk actually intends to do -- or where."
This may not be a mere bureaucratic snafu, argues Harvard law professor Susan Crawford in a recent Wired article. Toronto may actually have something to hide.
Partnerships between cities and companies have a history of benefiting the private partner more than the public, she writes. In this case, the primary worry is that the treasure trove of data Google will gain access to is worth far more to Google than to residents of Toronto.
"City officials may not understand that they will get access to very little of what Google learns from their citizens ... Meanwhile, Google will be gaining insights about urban life--including energy use, transit effectiveness, climate mitigation strategies, and social service delivery patterns--that it will then be able to resell to cities around the world. Including, perhaps, Toronto itself," worries Crawford.
In short: Google is sure to make a bundle out of the deal, while the benefits and drawbacks (including, potentially, loss of privacy) for citizens are much less clear.
"Online, we are already tracked everywhere by cookies and recording scripts, while our behavior and emotions are constantly analyzed for the benefit of advertisers. In the 'smart city' of the future, this would be true of our physical existence, too," frets a Guardian editorial.
"Much as [Google] is presently a gatekeeper for almost all of the internet that is not on Facebook, and so able to extract rents from any company that wants to be seen there, it would become the gatekeeper for those parts of the physical world that it controlled. Anyone who wanted to do business in the shiny new parts of cities that Alphabet controlled and built would end up paying for the privilege," the article speculates.
A more optimistic take
Of course, not everyone is suddenly gloomy about the future of the Toronto project. Those leading the initiative claim that additional transparency is just around the corner once further rounds of negotiations are finalized. Meanwhile, many techno-optimists will counter that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and if privacy activists or zoning board members have their feathers ruffled, then that's a small price to pay to build the city of the future.
What's your take: Is what's being built in Toronto a dystopia of corporate surveillance for private gain or a giant step closer to a more sustainable, enjoyable urban future? And would you want to live in a city built by Google?