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Google needed the perfect pushover. Clearly that’s Canada.

Google needed the perfect pushover. Clearly that’s Canada.

Written by
Daniel Bernhard
Executive Director and Spokesperson, FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting
on
June 24th, 2019

Google’s Sidewalk Labs’ proposal to develop a “smart city” on Toronto’s waterfront is more than a local issue about data protection: it represents Big Tech’s ambitious plan to monetize the public sphere, and we should all be worried.

Google needed the perfect pushover. Clearly that’s Canada.

Toronto skyline. Photo by Burst from Pexels.

Google’s public relations team deserves a medal. Or maybe a monument.

While Facebook takes heat for its myriad transgressions – “intentionally and knowingly” violating privacy and anti-competition laws, breaking promises to regulators, throwing elections, disseminating incitements to genocide, etc. – Google has managed to contain its controversies to the local level – and to keep them bland as can be.

Google’s anticipated announcement of its masterplan for Toronto’s waterfront development makes headlines.

Exhibit A: Sidewalk Toronto. Sidewalk Labs, a Google company, is proposing to develop a so-called “smart city” along Toronto’s waterfront, where “smart” is shorthand for “littered with cameras and sensors to monitor where you go, who you meet, how often you flush the toilet, and much more.” Google calls it a city built “from the internet up.”

Who will decide how these data are used? Can one opt out, or is this surveillance simply the cost of living in the city? What about minors, who lack the ability to consent to such pervasive privacy infringements? Torontonians are rightly preoccupied with these questions.

Yet by reducing the narrative to the issue of data protection, Google has spun the Sidewalk controversy into a highly technical local issue that people outside Toronto need not care about. Even Google’s surreal request for a cut of municipal property taxes is essentially local: if you don’t live in Toronto, it doesn’t affect you.

But Google’s Toronto experiment is a testing ground for something much bigger: Big Tech’s global ambition to colonize and monetize the public sphere. All Canadians – all humans – should be gravely concerned.

Google’s Toronto experiment is a testing ground for something much bigger: Big Tech’s global ambition to colonize and monetize the public sphere.

Companies like Facebook, Google, Netflix, Uber and Airbnb are perfecting what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, where privacy infringements are magnified by outsized corporations that can overpower sovereign states. In Canada, that means overriding the democratic process.

Do these companies operate in the public interest? Not even remotely. And Canada is failing to protect itself.

When you look at Sidewalk as a sovereignty issue, you realize that it is but one of many examples where Canadian governments allow big U.S. tech firms to call the shots. Our leaders are doing everything possible not to lead.

Critics and privacy experts have been raising concerns over Google’s collection of data through Sidewalk Toronto.

Sovereignty is the ability to make your own choices, yet we’re giving it up to Big Tech – on a silver platter.

Canada used to pride itself on its tough prohibition of hate speech – a radically different approach to America’s First Amendment free-for-all. But Ottawa has taken no meaningful action to ensure that our laws are enforced online. Instead, we cede the authority to govern civic discourse to Facebook’s Community Standards Team – a name that would make Orwell shudder. So while Canadian broadcasters and publishers face consequences for publishing false and illegal content, Facebook can livestream a mass murder without consequence.

Who decides how much Canadian content Internet broadcasters like Netflix should produce? Not Canadians. By choosing to delay regulation of internet broadcasters until at least 2021, we have ceded that power to Netflix. We no longer make cultural policy for ourselves. Instead, we get whatever Canadian content Netflix thinks we deserve.

It goes on. When it comes to enforcing our laws and regulations, Canada is happy to pretend that Facebook isn’t a publisher, Netflix isn’t a broadcaster, Uber isn’t a taxi, Airbnb isn’t a hotel.

Back to Sidewalk. Google is proposing to build a privately governed city, where it dictates the rights of citizens passing through and even takes a cut of public tax revenue. It’s essentially proposing to take over government’s governing duties. Even worse, reading the auditor general’s report on Waterfront Toronto, it looks as though the deal was cooked up in secret and pushed on Toronto after the fact. Nobody – except Google – ever asked for this.

Google is proposing to build a privately governed city, where it dictates the rights of citizens passing through and even takes a cut of public tax revenue.

Other major cities are pushing back against Big Tech’s conquest of public governance. New York is kicking Amazon out of Queens. Berlin is giving Google the boot. Obviously, cities like those would not provide a hospitable home for what Google proposes.

Charlie Angus Questions Google on Sidewalk Labs Toronto

For Sidewalk to succeed, Google needed to find the most compliant government possible: one that would gladly surrender sovereignty to a private American corporation. Google needed a pushover, and clearly it determined that of all governments on Earth, Canada was the biggest pushover. Lo and behold, Waterfront Toronto ceased to behave like a government agency, preferring to act as Google’s development agent instead.

An undated photo from Sidewalk Toronto’s handout showing the eastern waterfront of Toronto, Canada.

An undated photo from Sidewalk Toronto’s handout showing the eastern waterfront of Toronto, Canada.

Canada’s unwillingness to govern these companies is borderline embarrassing. Why govern your own city when you can get an American tech company to do it for you?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Sidewalk Labs’ more than 1,000-page Master Innovation and Development Plan was submitted to Waterfront Toronto last week, but it's essentially a distraction. Leadership isn't about asking corporations how our city should be governed. Torontonians, and all Canadians, need to decide for ourselves how the new data economy ought to be regulated, so that it reflects our values and serves our interests. As the election approaches, you can tell politicians that your vote has a price: an end to special treatment for Silicon Valley corporations that make negligible contributions to our society and democracy.

Visit WeChoose.ca to learn more and get involved.

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