Company Profile: Sidewalk Labs

By Emmanuel Appiah

Sidewalk Labs Lobbying in the News

The Sidewalk Labs saga, involving the federally-provincially-municipally established corporation Waterfront Toronto, and Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, shows how transparency in lobbying communications impacts public trust in government collaborations with digital platforms. In October 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alongside Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt announced that Sidewalk Labs would develop a smart city project on a 12-acre waterfront property in Toronto called Quayside.

One thing is clear from the Sidewalk Labs saga in Toronto: it was a highly ambitious and contentious endeavor by both Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. The lack of transparency regarding the Prime Minister’s Office communication with Sidewalk Labs, and its perceived influence over the approval process is amongst several concerns raised by civil rights advocates, politicians, community leaders and digital activists.

The Sidewalk Labs project revealed a gap in lobbying communications law. A January 2017 phone call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to former CEO of Sidewalk Labs subsidiary Google, Eric Schmidt was not disclosed to the public because the PM initiated the call. The revelation raised eyebrows given Trudeau’s statements in 2017 that, he and Schmidt “talked about collaborating on this for a few years now”. Although Schmidt was involved with Sidewalk during the Waterfront RFP process, Eric Schmidt was never a registered lobbyist for Sidewalk Labs according to the Canada Lobby registry.

Who Lobbies for Sidewalk Labs in Canada?

From 2017 to 2021, Sidewalk Labs had 75 communication reports involving a total of 37 senior officers. Lobbying activities represented less than 20% of the duties of each of the 37 senior officers at the company. No consultants were registered in the company’s communications. Sidewalk Labs’ lobbying communications are no longer registered with the Lobby registry.

Founder and CEO of Sidewalk Labs, Dan Doctoroff is the registered officer responsible for lobbying between the company and the Canadian government. Doctoroff worked in city planning, serving as New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding for six years under NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He also served as CEO and President of Bloomberg LP before starting Sidewalk Labs at Google.

Two senior officers at Sidewalk Labs have previously held public office. As of February 2019, Public Affairs Associate, Ryan Guptill was registered in communications reports. He worked as a principal secretary to an MP in the House of Commons from September 2012 to February 2014. Since 2020, Guptill has served as the Vice President of Strategic Communications with Loyalist Public Affairs. Also, Policy and Program Delivery Associate, Maya Borgenicht, held a federal designated public office. Between September 2017 to July 20, 2018, Borgenicht served as the Senior Policy Advisor with Indigenous Services Canada. She also served as a Policy Advisor with Infrastructure Canada between December 2015 and September 2017. Borgenicht’s Designated Public Office status was not included in her Lobbyist Details until the March 2019 communications report despite her involvement in earlier communications.

What does Sidewalk Labs lobby about in Canada?

Between 2017 to 2019, Sidewalk Labs communicated and consulted with the City of Toronto, the Ontario government, and federal government on its development plans amidst growing concerns surrounding privacy and economic development.

As early as February 2018, Sidewalk Labs communicated with government officials about regulations related to the testing and piloting of autonomous vehicles. Sidewalk Labs consistently met with government officials to discuss possibly collaborating on transportation and renewable energy. This aligns with the platform’s early aspirations to integrate autonomous vehicles with public infrastructure (e.g., public transit and traffic lights) to boost efficiency and sustainability. Sensors would also use “machine learning, statistical modelling and image processing” track traffic flows. Its data collection plans also included optimizing parking through monitoring programs, predictive analytics over building energy usages, and sensors measuring temperature and air quality.

Sidewalk Labs’ initial plans for the Quayside development came with increasing public scrutiny over what seemed to be unregulated access, collection, and management of public and personal data. From May 2018 onward, Sidewalk Labs’ lobbying communications included communicating with government officials about privacy-related matters. At this time, the company’s registered lobbying information began listing the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in its communications report. While the data would surely be lucrative to Sidewalk Labs and other tech partners, critics believed the government was left out of the economic profits. Waterfront Toronto’s very own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel raised concerns that Sidewalk Labs’ plans for an urban data trust were too abstract and without specifics. The urban data trust would oversee data management of personal data collected from public spaces and digital infrastructure.

Affordable housing was a necessary selling point for the Sidewalk Labs project, earmarking 20% of the development to subsidizing housing. However, critics noted that the Quayside project would need to be scaled up or publicly funded through CMHC to ensure economic profits. At the beginning of 2019, the company’s registered lobbying information began listing the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in its communications.

What government institutions does Sidewalk Labs lobby in Canada?

Sidewalk Labs has lobbied 18 government institutions to date. A complete list of institutions is provided below using information from the Lobbying Registry.

  1. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)
  2. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)
  3. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)
  4. Finance Canada (FIN)
  5. Global Affairs Canada (GAC)
  6. House of Commons
  7. Infrastructure Canada (INFC)
  8. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED)
  9. National Research Council (NRC)
  10. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan)
  11. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC)
  12. Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)
  13. Privy Council Office (PCO)
  14. Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)
  15. Public Safety Canada (PS)
  16. Toronto Port Authority
  17. Transport Canada (TC)
  18. Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS)