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Big Tech is remaking our cities. It’s time to fight back
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Big Tech is remaking our cities. It’s time to fight back

Écrit par
Thorben Wieditz
le
24 février 2020

A new target has popped up on Google’s radar. The tech giant is coming for Canada’s cities and Toronto’s waterfront is at the top of their hit list.

Big Tech is remaking our cities. It’s time to fight back

A new target has popped up on Google’s radar. The tech giant is coming for Canada’s cities and Toronto’s waterfront is at the top of their hit list. In the matter of a mere decade, Big Tech has remade Canadian media landscapes, transportation systems, and housing markets - changes that have emerged in the absence of meaningful regulation or consumer protection. What started out as an idea to democratise knowledge production and economic development quickly transformed into new monopolies, where Facebook and YouTube spread fake news, Uber destroys public transit, and Airbnb evaporates housing stock, each acting with impunity. Unless leaders and residents choose to fight back, Toronto’s Quayside will soon see a similar fate; an entire urban neighbourhood captured by a Silicon Valley tech firm.

Governments have long turned a blind eye to the ill effects of the digital economy, and the Governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto are no different. Eroding tax bases, government inaction has enabled and, in some cases – like Google’s advertisements, Uber’s car rides, and Airbnb’s hotel rooms – legalized extractive business models that benefit American tech firms but have little upside for local residents, workers, cities, and their economic interests. A devasted media system, the loss of public service journalism, and a near-endless consumer appetite for digital products and services has meant that inaction has come at little cost to politicians. In the case of Google’s Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, a partnership between all three levels of government, the possibilities presented by a ‘smart city’ appear to outweigh the importance of protecting residents by governing. As the saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

The possibilities presented by a ‘smart city’ appear to outweigh the importance of protecting residents by governing.

Everywhere, Big Tech firms are working tirelessly to keep governments at all levels on side.

Four years after Toronto City Council legalized Uber, valued today at $76 billion, and de-regulated the taxi industry, it has become apparent to everyone that Uber failed to deliver the efficiencies it promised. Consumer convenience is being paid for in increased congestion, an eroded tax base, avoided safety standards, race-to-the-bottom wages and rights for drivers, compromised accessibility, and environmental damage. Uber's ability to deliver an appealing service is driven, not by the efficiencies it promised, but by venture capital underwriting its true cost. In its attempt to position itself as an essential service, Uber, like Airbnb, has built its business model on avoiding the costs associated with being a good corporate citizen.

While City Council took a decisively less enabling approach with Airbnb by regulating the home-“sharing” company in 2017, a number of appeals financed in part by the $38 billion company have slowed down the implementation of Toronto’s rules. What has become apparent since is that rather than providing efficiencies by making better use of underutilized assets, Airbnb has turned more than 7,500 entire homes into what has been called “ghost hotels,” homes that are being rented exclusively to tourists and guests by absentee landlords. A recent report by Fairbnb Canada estimated that without Airbnb operating in Toronto, the City’s vacancy rate would increase from the current 1.3% to what CMHC considers a healthy 3.%. There is no way around the fact that Airbnb significantly contributes to housing crisis in urban areas with tight rental markets.

Even though Toronto reels from the double assault by Uber and Airbnb, decision makers continue to consider Big Tech a solution to the problems that governments face. When Waterfront Toronto courted Google to come and build a “smart city,” Toronto’s mayor, the Province’s Premier and Canada’s Prime Minister fell over each other to announce the partnership between Waterfront Toronto and Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs. Sidewalk Labs, headquartered like Google at Alphabet’s global head office in Mountainview California, has since made a mockery of Waterfront Toronto. A report by Ontario’s Auditor General has shown how the tri-government agency has brought Sidewalk Labs to Toronto in what reads like a cooked-up deal between the Prime Ministers’ Office and Waterfront Toronto’s leadership at the time. What transpired since is a long list of faux pas that had Waterfront Toronto tumble into legal arrangements that removed much public oversight and gave Google too much leeway.



Want to help us protect Canada's democracy from foreigh tech giants? Here's what you can do:


What Google has in common with Uber and Airbnb, particularly when compared to cash-strapped local governments following decades of neoliberalism, are sheer limitless resources. Google’s revenue for the first quarter of 2019 was $40.3 billion U.S. This power imbalance is what steamrolls government agencies like Waterfront Toronto. Bound by rushed legal agreements that were signed without due diligence and democratic oversight, the tri-government agency has effectively become the co-creator and evaluator of Google’s plans for Toronto’s waterfront. As such, the agency’s ability to provide independent oversight has been severely compromised. Accepting $5.8 million from Sidewalk Labs to pay for current and future staff, representing 83% of Waterfront Toronto’s total operating budget for 2017/18, entrenched Google’s influence in Waterfront Toronto even further. The fact that Google provides more money to Waterfront Toronto than the $4.5 million it receives from all governments combined should give us reason to pause. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Sidewalk Labs is paying Waterfront Toronto to approve Google’s plans. Waterfront Toronto has become the de facto development arm for Google in Canada, owing more to Google executives in Mountainview California, than to our own elected governments.

Given what we know today about how data can be and has been used to influence elections and geo-politics, we all need to be on alert when a U.S. monopoly like Google tries to sell us smart city infrastructure to collect our data.

This is a textbook case of corporate capture.

Given what we know today about how data can be and has been used to influence elections and geo-politics, we all need to be on alert when a U.S. monopoly like Google tries to sell us smart city infrastructure to collect our data. Despite mountains of criticism, Waterfront Toronto continues to work hard to provide Google with a foothold in the city. Given the corporate capture of Waterfront Toronto, there is little hope for the agency to be able to protect the public interest.

For this reason, citizen groups like #BlockSidewalk have been organizing to ensure that a hard no remains on the table. After all, no one but Google had asked Waterfront Toronto to build a surveillance test bed in Toronto. For members of #BlockSidewalk and many of its allies, Google remains the wrong partner and no digital infrastructure projects of such magnitude should be allowed to proceed within a regulatory vacuum.