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Google Proposes Its First Urban Development Project

The current agreement leaves ownership of data issues for later shows that it wasn't properly drafted and means patents derived from the data will default to Google.

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A Google logo is displayed at the entrance to the internet based company's offices in Toronto. VOA

Heated streets will melt ice and snow on contact. Sensors will monitor traffic and protect pedestrians. Driverless shuttles will carry people to their doors.

A unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet is proposing to turn a rundown part of Toronto’s waterfront into what may be the most wired community in history — to “fundamentally refine what urban life can be.”

Sidewalk Labs has partnered with a government agency known as Waterfront Toronto with plans to erect mid-rise apartments, offices, shops and a school on a 12-acre (4.9-hectare) site — a first step toward what it hopes will eventually be a 800-acre (325-hectare) development.

High-level interest is clear: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alphabet’s then-Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt appeared together to announce the plan in October.

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A Google logo is seen at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, VOA

But some Canadians are rethinking the privacy implications of giving one of the most data-hungry companies on the planet the means to wire up everything from street lights to pavement. And some want the public to get a cut of the revenue from products developed using Canada’s largest city as an urban laboratory.

“The Waterfront Toronto executives and board are too dumb to realize they are getting played,” said former BlackBerry chief executive Jim Balsillie, a smartphone pioneer considered a national hero.

Complaints about the proposed development prompted Waterfront Toronto to re-do the agreement to ensure a greater role for the official agency, which represents city, provincial and federal governments.

So far the project is still in the embryonic stage. After consultations, the developers plan to present a formal master plan early next year.

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Trump Also Expands Google Criticism to Include Facebook, Twitter. VOA

Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, envisions features like pavement that lights up to warn pedestrians of approaching streetcars. Flexible heated enclosures — described as “raincoats” for buildings — will be deployed based on weather data during Toronto’s bitter winters. Robotic waste-sorting systems will detect when a garbage bin is full and remove it before raccoons descend.

“Those are great uses of data that can improve the quality of life of people,” he said. “That’s what we want to do.”

Sidewalk Labs promotional materials promise “a place that’s enhanced by digital technology and data, without giving up the privacy and security that everyone deserves.”

Doctoroff said the company isn’t looking to monetize people’s personal information in the way that Google does now with search information. He said the plan is to invent so-far-undefined products and services that Sidewalk Labs can market elsewhere.

“People automatically assume because of our relationship to Alphabet and Google that they will be treated one way or another. We have never said anything” about the data issue, he said. “To be honest people should give us some time. Be patient.”

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Google has collaborated with Getty images. Wikimedia Commons

But that wasn’t good enough for Julie Di Lorenzo, a prominent Toronto developer who resigned from the Waterfront Toronto board over the project. Di Lorenzo said data and what Google wants to do with it should be front and center in the discussions. She also believes the government agency has given the Google affiliate too much power over how the project develops.

“How can [Waterfront Toronto], a corporation established by three levels of democratically elected government, have shared values with a limited, for-profit company whose premise is embedded data collection?” Di Lorenzo asked.

Di Lorenzo asks who will own the autonomous vehicles. “Is the municipality maintaining the fleet or forcing you to share your vehicle?” She also asks if people who don’t want their data collected will be allowed to live there.

The concerns have intensified following a series of privacy scandals at Facebook and Google. A recent Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on iPhones and Android devices store location-tracking data even if you use privacy settings that are supposed to turn them off.

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The Alexa Echo Dot devices include the official Saint Louis University logo and are equipped with specific skills to provide information on local events and campus life. VOA

“It gives all of us pause,” Waterfront board chair Helen Burstyn acknowledged.

Bianca Wylie, an advocate of open government, said it remains deeply troubling that Sidewalk Labs still hasn’t said who will own data produced by the project or how it will be monetized. Google is here to make money, she said, and Canadians should benefit from any data or products developed from it.

“We are not here to be someone’s research and development lab,” she said, “to be a loss leader for products they want to sell globally.”

Ottawa patent lawyer Natalie Raffoul said the fact that the current agreement leaves ownership of data issues for later shows that it wasn’t properly drafted and means patents derived from the data will default to Google.

“We just can’t be too trusting of corporations,” she said.

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An empty chair reserved for Google’s parent Alphabet, which refused to send its top executive, is seen as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg accompanied by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on ‘Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms’ on Capitol Hill. VOA

But Burstyn, the Waterfront Toronto chair, said the upcoming master plan will address data concerns. The agency wants to make Toronto a global hub of a rising new industry, she said.

“Everybody gets worried about the digital and technology aspects that might run amok,” she said. “I don’t worry about that as much as I see the opportunities for developing a really interesting, innovative community.”

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Adam Vaughan, the federal lawmaker whose district includes the development, said debate about big data and urban infrastructure is coming to cities across the world and he would rather have Toronto at the forefront of discussion.

“Google is ahead of governments globally and locally. That’s a cause for concern but it’s also an opportunity,” Vaughan said. (VOA)

Next Story

Google, Apple to Remove Saudi App Allowing Men to Control and Monitor Wives

The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores.

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FILE - A Saudi woman speaks on the phone in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 2, 2017. VOA

A Saudi Arabian government app that allows men in the country to monitor and control their female relatives’ travel at the click of a button should be removed from Google and Apple’s online stores, a U.S. politician and activists said on Wednesday.

Human rights campaigners argued the tech giants are enabling abuses against women and girls in the ultra-conservative kingdom by hosting the app.

The free Absher app, created by the Saudi interior ministry, allows men to update or withdraw permissions for their wives and female relatives to travel internationally and get SMS updates if their passports are used, said human rights researchers.

The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores.

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The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores. VOA

“Part of the app’s design is to discriminate against women,” said Rothna Begum, an expert in women’s rights in the Middle East at Human Rights Watch.

“The complete control that a male guardian has is now facilitated with the use of modern technology and makes the lives of men ultimately easier and restricts women’s lives that much more.”

Begum said a few women had turned the app to their advantage by gaining access to their guardian’s phone and changing the settings to grant themselves freedom, but such cases were rare.

Neither Apple nor Google were immediately available for comment. Apple CEO Tim Cook told U.S. public radio NPR yesterday that he had not heard of Absher but pledged to “take a look at it”.

Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry, and travel under the country’s strict guardianship system, which human rights groups have criticized as abusive.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has publicly called on both Apple and Google to remove it from their stores, arguing it promotes “abusive practices against women” in a Twitter post.

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Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap. Pixabay

However, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesman on the Middle East for women’s rights group Equality Now, raised doubts over whether the companies would take action.

“Power and money talks, unfortunately, without giving any attention to the violations of human rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I really hope they take a concrete stand towards removing these apps but I am not really hopeful.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.

Its guardianship system came under fresh scrutiny after Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fled from her family and was granted asylum in Canada in January.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated last year he favored ending the guardianship system but stopped short of backing its annulment.

ALSO READ: Google Invests $13 Billion in New US Offices and Expanded Data Centers

But any moves toward gender equality have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of women’s rights activists as well as Muslim clerics. (VOA)