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Sidewalk Labs CEO says 'vast majority' of privacy questions have been answered


TORONTO — The leader of a company behind a proposal for a high-tech, Alphabet Inc-backed Toronto community brushed off privacy concerns associated with the project, saying it has addressed most issues by recently revealing its data plans.

Dan Doctoroff, the chief executive officer of Sidewalk Labs, said at the Fortune Global Forum on Wednesday that he hoped concerns had been quelled after his organization released its privacy proposal for the Quayside development it is working on with Waterfront Toronto earlier this week.

"I think for all but the most extreme advocates, it should answer the vast majority of questions," he said.

"It is a proposal. There are lots of details to work out. We acknowledge that, but that is part of what the discourse should be."

For months Doctoroff's company and the project have been dogged with questions around privacy, ownership of intellectual property and how data will be collected, kept, accessed and protected.

Critics have complained about issues around project leadership, the lack of clarity around Sidewalk's plans and few details being shared with the public. Some have quit — or are considering quitting — an advisory panel Waterfront Toronto set up to help guide the project.

Sidewalk Labs has hosted a handful of meetings to hear and address public queries and concerns, but only unveiled its draft data and privacy proposal on Monday.

The plans show Sidewalk Labs does not intend to own the data it gathers in public spaces and instead will relinquish control of it to an independent organization to be set up and called the Civic Data Trust. The Trust will set the rules around data use, make it open and accessible to people while offering privacy protection and ensure that Sidewalk Labs does not receive any special status or rights when it comes to data access.

The plan mentions little of intellectual property, which has been a prime concern for many in Canada who have spoken out against foreign technology companies infiltrating the country and using Canadian talent to build intellectual property that ends up sending revenue to other nations.

"We have made very clear quite consistently that where something is developed here, where we have uniquely been able to take advantage of this opportunity, we are very open to sharing the benefits of those intellectual property innovations," Doctoroff said Wednesday.

Sidewalk Labs and Doctoroff have faced criticism from former Research In Motion Inc. CEO Jim Balsillie and ex-Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel advisory member Saadia Muzaffar. Muzaffar's October resignation followed that of Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System executive John Ruffolo.

Current members of the panel Andrew Clement and Teresa Scassa both confirmed to The Canadian Press they are considering leaving the panel. The Globe and Mail, which revealed they were considering exiting, reported that panellist Pamela Robinson was also mulling resigning.

Scassa told The Canadian Press part of her "frustration" stems from little opportunity to provide meaningful input on a digital strategy, a feeling that the panel has been "late out of the gate" and a lack of time between Sidewalk Labs providing documentation and the panel meeting.

Asked about the potential departures and about other public criticism, Doctoroff said, "It is mystifying sometimes to me that people will prejudge things when in fact we have said that we are in the process of studying things that will continue for this year. If that is what people feel like they need to do, then that's fine."

"I think to some extent some of the criticisms were unfair because they prejudge something before the process is unfolding," he continued. "I am also somebody who believes that even if you disagree with something you should try and make it better."

Doctoroff noted that Sidewalk Labs was starting an advisory council of its own to continue its discussions with the public.

He met with the members over lunch and a copy of his 10-page speech Sidewalk Labs provided to The Canadian Press showed he was due to discuss everything from Sidewalk Labs' vision for the project to privacy.

"I must tell you that there are times when the prejudgment of what we will propose — and assumptions of ill intent — have taken me by surprise," he was due to say. "But I can tell you there is nothing more behind the curtain than what I have shared with you today."

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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