Toronto should join other world cities in digital rights accord, councillors say

Councillors Paul Ainslie and Joe Cressy are pushing Toronto to sign onto a pact alongside New York, Amsterdam and London that's meant to boost digital literacy and privacy in cities around the world.

Move would align city with New York, London in boosting digital literacy, privacy

Cars are parked near the future site of the proposed Sidewalk Labs waterfront development that's sparking controversy over data use and privacy concerns. Against that backdrop, two councillors are calling on Toronto to join a growing coalition of cities supporting digital rights. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

In a time when the proposed Sidewalk Labs waterfront development is sparking controversy over data use and privacy concerns, two councillors are calling on Toronto to join a growing coalition of cities supporting digital rights.

"The City of Toronto should adopt its own digital infrastructure, data and Smart Cities policy framework and governance plan to ensure that the digital rights of its constituents are upheld," Coun. Paul Ainslie wrote in a new member motion to council that's backed by Coun. Joe Cressy.

The pair are pushing their fellow council members to sign up alongside 26 other cities — including New York, Chicago, Amsterdam and London — for the Cities for Digital Rights initiative, which launched in 2014 to protect resident rights online.

The motion, heading to the June council meeting on Tuesday, also calls for Toronto to back creating new free programming in partnership with the Toronto Public Library to boost digital literacy and expand the city's Open Data program.

"We're overdue in this city to have our own plan," Cressy said. He added that a new policy framework for the city will be developed before the end of the year.

The push comes amid growing concern over how citizen data could be used by Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc., in its planned Sidewalk Labs residential development project for the 4.8-hectare waterfront site known as Quayside.

The proposed high-tech neighbourhood would include cameras and other monitoring systems to gather data on how to run the area more efficiently, but any personal details would be stripped.

While representatives for the project have said it will "set a new standard of privacy and forward-thinking data policy," organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a group called BlockSidewalk have raised red flags about potential privacy breaches.

Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and prominent tech industry investor, also recently wrote a letter to council's executive committee, saying the project is a "dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society."

Coun. Joe Cressy is hoping Toronto will sign onto a pact alongside New York, Amsterdam and London that's meant to boost digital literacy and privacy in cities around the world. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

'Every day' city collects data from residents

Cressy acknowledged the current concerns about Sidewalk Labs, but stressed it's not the first time data usage and privacy issues have cropped up in Toronto. 

Residents had "very real concerns" about election security and Toronto police carding for instance, he said, referencing the controversial practice of randomly stopping citizens and collecting their personal information.

"Every day the city of Toronto collects data," Cressy continued. "Whether we collect data because we're monitoring the bike lane on Bloor, or the King Street pilot, or because you're hopping on the subway."

Against this backdrop, one data and privacy expert believes it's high time Toronto and other municipalities broaden their involvement in the realm of privacy protection and citizen awareness.

"We pay city taxes, we report different issues about our roads and neighbourhoods ... There are lots of different opportunities for cities to more transparent," said Anatoliy Gruzd, the Canada Research Chair in Social Media Data Stewardship and a professor at Ryerson University.

Cities also need to find ways to ethically use data to inform city planning, he added.

"My hope is, if Toronto does join this group of cities around the world, there will be potentially new initiatives to minimize the type of data that's being collected," Gruzd said.

City officials from the global spots already on board are touting the progress made in their areas, according to the Cities for Digital Rights website.

Amsterdam, for instance, is "pioneering" the development of open, accountable tech solutions, and created a programming school and easy-to-use digital participation tools to give residents a bigger voice. 

New York, meanwhile, is spearheading initiatives like free public WiFi for all residents, coupled with reliable information on the data limitations and quality to provide fairness through a public resource.

And in London, nearly half of all residents are now using travel apps developed through the city's transportation department, while city officials are using databases to solve the area's challenges, from poor air quality to housing issues.

In light of other cities' achievements, "it's time for us to step forward and articulate the governance model and policy principles to guide data in our city," Cressy said.


Lauren Pelley

Senior Health & Medical Reporter

Lauren Pelley covers health and medical science for CBC News, including the global spread of infectious diseases, Canadian health policy, and pandemic preparedness. Her 2020 investigation into COVID-19 infections among health-care workers won best in-depth series at the RNAO Media Awards. Contact her at:

With files from the Canadian Press