TORONTO – A member of the panel guiding Sidewalk Labs’ plans to build a high-tech neighbourhood in Toronto has resigned, citing “deep dismay” and “profound concern” about the project and those behind it.
In a letter obtained by The Canadian Press, TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar said she is stepping away from her role with the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel because project-backer Waterfront Toronto has shown “apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust” and has dodged questions around privacy and intellectual property, even at a series of roundtables the organization has held to consult the public.
“I have yet to see evidence that Waterfront Toronto shares the urgency and concern that has been raised in multiple fora,” Muzaffar said in the note to Waterfront Toronto and her fellow panel members dated Oct. 4.
“The most recent roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure. Time was spent instead talking about buildings made out of wood and the width of one-way streets, things no one has contested or expressed material concern for in this entire process.”
Muzaffar’s resignation from the panel follows that of Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System executive John Ruffolo and comes as controversy surrounding the project from Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google-owner Alphabet Inc., continues to mount.
Critics of the project have complained since its inception that those behind it have shared few details about their plans and given little explanation for how data will be collected, kept, accessed and protected.
The concerns have made it all the way to the office of Toronto Mayor John Tory, which told The Canadian Press last month that the mayor had met with former Alphabet Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Sidewalks Labs founder Dan Doctoroff and discussed “the need for Google to give Toronto residents a better understanding of the details of its plans for urban innovation and their data privacy commitments as soon as is practical.”
Beyond raising issues with the lack of information for the public, Muzaffar’s letter also mentioned concerns stemming from recent reports that Sidewalk Labs is “asking potential local consultants to hand over any intellectual property that is developed to the Alphabet-owned company – and in cases where that’s not possible, to give Sidewalk Labs an exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide licence to use it.”
Muzaffar did not respond to requests for comment, but her letter said the choice to step down from the panel was “difficult,” especially because she noted that she is only person of colour on a panel that she claimed doesn’t have any Indigenous representation.
In response to Muzaffar’s letter, Waterfront Toronto’s acting chief executive officer Michael Nobrega released a statement saying the organization is “unwavering” in its commitment to the public interest.
“We are also well supported by external privacy and legal experts including a former Federal Privacy Commissioner, and continue to welcome the comments and interest of a broad base of community members,” he said.
Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs did not answer The Canadian Press’s questions around whether Muzaffar’s resignation came as a surprise or if it was looking to change the way it operates as a result of her criticism.
However, Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Dan Levitan said, “We take seriously questions about data and expect in the months ahead to present and consult with the public on a comprehensive plan for data collection, use, and governance.”