Google Sidewalk Project is Still Too Sketchy and Undemocratic

Sidewalk Labs

New Orleans    Maybe I should shut-up about the Sidewalk development project being proposed by Google in Toronto on 800-acres.  ACORN and some of our allies went after them from the day they won the bid to submit proposals on the issue of the lack of affordable housing in a city that is caught in an affordable housing crisis.  The more than 1000-page proposal they submitted this week actually makes concessions to our demands.  Of the 35,000 housing units now proposed, they claim that 40% would be affordable.  That’s a win, but is that enough to make us stomach the role of Google, the fakery of the consultative process up to this point, and, frankly, the neoliberal corporate control and privatization of public process, regulations, and responsibilities.

I’m not going to pretend that Google isn’t a tech wonder even as it has become a world power.  It’s not as creepy as Facebook, but it’s unaccountable with a business model that pimps out all of us who use their services.  I have a google address for some personal business.  I use Google Maps to navigate my way around the world.  ACORN has a YouTube channel.  When PalmPilot went under, I had to switch to Google calendar.  I’m not a hater.

ACORN Canada even uses Google to host their email system, despite the fact that Google is crystal clear that they never destroy anything.  The depth of their data mining operation is unlimited and unfathomable.  They want to make the Sidewalk project a data motherload for Google as well.  The company’s proposal claims that they will turn everything over to an independent data trust, sanctioned by the government, so that they, and others, can access the data.  Privacy experts are not so easily assuaged.  Neither am I.  Isn’t such citizen experience with public goods something that should remain purely the responsibility of government accountable to citizens, rather than accessible to a private business like Google or other private concerns?  If the city of Toronto or any other city announced that it was collecting data on its citizens and was then going to sell it, people there and anywhere else would be up in arms.

Google, as a private company, simply doesn’t get the fact that there are boundaries.  They are part of the “apologize later, never ask for permission” crowd.  Their proposal ignores existing Toronto zoning laws for example, and I couldn’t read any piece of this without feeling they were usurping the authority of government and the people.  That’s what neoliberalism is, the transfer of public rights and authority to private concerns.  If Google was hired to be a designer and developer, why would they believe that allows them to own the show and run it forever.  A developer, for good or evil, usually sells their “castles in the sky” and then gets their money and runs.  Google seems to think they should own this project forever.  Google needs to taught about limits.

The New York Times quotes Jim Balsille, who was the co-chairmen and co-chief executive of BlackBerry, once the ubiquitous smartphone of the business set, headquartered in Ontario in the Waterloo-Kitchener area, saying,

“I am keen to see the end of this faux consultation charade, an ugly 18-month, psychological public relations game….Google has deliberately weaponized ambiguity, subverted democratic process, obfuscated key elements of concern such as data governance and revealed information to the public only when smoked out by aggressive criticism or through a media leak.”

This just doesn’t seem like it’s going to end well.

ACORN Canada will continue to hold any and all feet to the fire on affordable housing, but perhaps all of us just need to thank Google for whatever good we see in the plan, ignore their attempt to buy support with their own investment masked as infrastructure spending, but recovered through selling data, and retake control of any development and hire contractors to provide whatever services public entities can’t provide.

Public entities have to be able to trust their partners, and Google is not a trustworthy partner at this point.  Google can bid like anyone else, but should not run or own anything.  Haven’t we learned that lesson from Silicon Valley by now?

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Rules and Standards need Umpires

Houston   Sometimes we find surprising light in dark corners.  At least, that’s how I felt reading a kind of weird conversation between two, seemingly random, people as an op-ed in the New York Times.  It turned out this was a kind of bizarre experiment of sorts from one of their opinion writers, Charlie Warzel, and a member of their editorial board, Sarah Jeong.  Ostensibly, the piece was about the fact that YouTube, in announcing that they were bouncing various videos off of their wildly popular site, owned by Google, was spectacularly unqualified to act as both judge and jury on such matters.

Who could argue?  The interesting part was a remarkably clear explication by Jeong of what she called a classic lesson from law school about the difficulty in determining rules versus standards.  She embarked on this riff noting that the YouTube problem with consistency and response about its new policies was the fact that they were obviously written by lawyers.  Here’s her explication:

Most laws are a mix of rules and standards. Rules are rigid, and the most rigid are referred to as “bright line” rules because they’re so straightforward to interpret: If you steal a loaf of bread, your hand gets chopped off. A standard is more flexible. There are multistep tests and the weighing of various factors. First Amendment law, for instance, has a lot of standards in it. The problem with the bright-line rules is that they often lead to injustice because they’re not flexible enough. On the face of it, it seems like standards should be better, right? But standards are harder to enforce, so you’re more likely to get delays in the courts and inconsistency in decisions. So, the vaguer and more flexible a law is, the more it takes into account the totality of the circumstances, the more it’s actually likely to lead to injustice. Additionally, standards become harder to predict, so there’s a social uncertainty about what’s acceptable and what’s not. There’s a reason the most-watched Supreme Court cases involve standards.

This explanation of “legal theory,” as she called it, was interesting because we had been to a baseball game the Houston Astros, the closest Major League team we could see as our “home” team, and the Baltimore Orioles.  There’s hardly a better example of a rules-and-laws bound environment than baseball.  It works though because it is not only transparent, which something like YouTube is not, because everyone can see the play, but it also has a way to handle the fact that like social media, everyone has an opinion.  What makes it work is not simply the fact that players and coaches participating in the game have been schooled on the rules forever, but the fact that there are umpires.  Like them or not, they are the unquestioned guardians of the sport, and they make immediate decisions, and there is no question that their decisions will prevail, even if questioned later.

There is almost universal agreement that something like YouTube has to be regulated, but sport officiating might be a model worth examining in light of all of this.  There would need to be referees or umpires whose decisions were respected and followed, even if there a review or appeal process.  They would have to be independent and the “rules,” would have to be transparent and well-known to all participants.  The op-ed folks worry about YouTube being  compromised by its “influencers,” but they are still lesser stars in the firmament than sports figures making gazillions, who may get a break from time to time, but no, despite their whining like James Harden and Chris Paul, in a recent series, they still know they have to follow the rules and live by them, if they are going to play ball.

Think about it.  The models available from the sports world might work a lot better than the mess we live with that comes from law schools.

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