Google-affiliate Sidewalk Labs continues to press its vision for a “civic data trust” to govern data collected from its Sidewalk Toronto project (assuming the project goes ahead).
Here are three questions, Waterfront Toronto should be asking Sidewalk Labs.
1. Why not give Ontario researchers and start-ups a head start?
Sidewalk Labs keeps saying that its Toronto project isn’t a data play. For that reason, it has proposed that data be open to all. It also says that data localization – keeping the data in Canada – might not be good for Ontario companies who might want to use computing resources or partner with companies outside of Canada.
If this isn’t a data play, then why not provide preferential access to the data for Ontario researchers and start-ups? Data could be provided to Ontario researchers and university-connected start-ups for a reasonable period before the data-streams or datasets are made available to other entities. This would assist in incubating our own research and development using that data. Other companies (including Google) would be welcome, of course, to partner with Ontario researchers and university-connected start-ups to invest in the local tech community. But first dibs at research and development go to Ontario researchers and startups.
2. Why not look to university research ethics boards?
Sidewalk Labs wants to create a civic data trust. The idea is that this will be an independent body to manage access to the data created by the Sidewalk Toronto project. This body would allegedly be the steward of the data in the public interest and be a gatekeeper for the protection of individual privacy rights.
Why does big-tech always think it knows better? Why reinvent the wheel? Our university institutions have experience managing the ethical research and development through Research Ethics Boards. There is no need to create a new body. My guess is that there is a deal to be struck with Toronto’s three local universities – the University of Toronto, York University and Ryerson University. In return for its faculty, graduate students, fellows and their partners getting first crack at the data, I expect that they could expand their Research Ethics Boards to address the issues involved in ethical exploitation of the data. Has anyone asked them?
3. Why work so hard to avoid the application of existing laws?
A troubling aspect of the civic data trust is that it is (at least for now) unlikely to be subject to any privacy laws.
That’s right. The Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act won’t apply. The civic data trust would not be a public body.
The civic data trust would not be subject to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) because its activities would not be commercial activities. It would be a steward of the data for others.
The federal government could try to make the trust subject to PIPEDA by fiat but that would be a major intrusion on provincial affairs (and should, if the Ford government is awake, set off a constitutional challenge) – this is a province-level and city-level issue not a matter of national trade and commerce.
Of course, supporters of the civic data trust will argue that we could enact new provincial (or, if the federal government dared, federally). But why?
Ontario universities are already subject to privacy laws. They are subject to the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the oversight of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC). While amendments to the law would be welcomed to address some of the issues relating to the Sidewalk Toronto project, placing governance in Toronto’s universities would ensure oversight by Ontario for Ontario. The IPC has extensive experience dealing with municipal issues and privacy in research. It is the best-placed institution to oversee privacy in the Sidewalk Toronto community.
Let’s not let shiny new things distract us from what already works.