In Libraries We Trust

To be a world-class digital city, Toronto must make the public library — not Google — its core institution of trust.

By Milan Gokhale - November 20, 2018

Last Wednesday, Amazon announced that they will open satellite offices in New York City and northern Virginia, D.C. The announcement shouldn’t have been newsworthy — after all, tech companies open satellite offices in new cities all the time — but Amazon is different. A year ago, they turned their business growth plan into Amazon HQ2, an international marketing stunt that compelled small and large cities alike to compete for the chance to exacerbate income inequality. The resulting race to the bottom pitted American workers against one another in an unethical and borderline illegal form of city building.

The Amazon HQ2 circus is the latest chapter in Silicon Valley’s quest to aggressively expand its foothold on cities across North America. In Toronto, Google has started a similar conquest to embed itself into Toronto’s institutions through its subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs. Its first foray is a partnership with Waterfront Toronto, an unelected, economic development agency that is funded by local, provincial and federal governments. At the heart of Google’s sales pitch is an offer to replace our imperfect, democratic approach to information governance with an undemocratic, market-based approach. Last month, in the midst of pressure from Toronto residents whose acts of resistance were changing public perception of the real estate project, Sidewalk Labs proposed that all collected data for the Toronto-based waterfront neighbourhood should be placed in a public, civic data trust. A data trust is a legal contract that defines the terms on which shared data is used and maintained. The data trust proposal was heralded by Sidewalk Labs as proof that they are listening but the legal details provided were confusing, inaccessible and riddled with inconsistencies about data infrastructure access and ownership. Plus, it’s unclear how or why Sidewalk Labs is involved.

Google as the Chief Technology Officer for Toronto may be deeply problematic, but their core sales pitch is alluring, because many Canadians don’t trust government to advance their social, political and cultural interests. In Toronto, anti-government sentiment is a powerful force, fuelled by decades of populist, right-wing, low-tax rhetoric from conservative municipal mayors like Mel Lastman, Rob Ford and John Tory. It’s also fuelled by decades of structural violence, police brutality and surveillance technology from federal and provincial governments. Today’s political leaders surveil their own residentsweaponize collected datacancel data pilot projects and misrepresent data points to score political talking points. It’s hardly surprising that some residents are skeptical about the capacity of government to responsibly collect, store, distribute and represent data.

How do we balance individual, civil liberties with collective, social responsibilities? To be successful, proponents of any public data infrastructure will require an institution of trust with a long history of integrity, intent, credentials and results. In the current political climate, it would be nearly impossible to build this institution from scratch. But we don’t have to. Toronto already has a world-class institution of trust that technologists must embrace as part of our digital, civic lives — the public library.

Toronto already has a world-class civic trust with a digital mandate.

The Toronto Public Library (TPL) is the largest neighbourhood-based library system in the world. Despite few popular political champions and flatlined city budgets in the last decade, TPL has stayed true to its 150-year legacy as a physical space used to provide knowledge and skills for all people. Today, its ambitious digital revitalization program is the envy of the world.

When it comes to trust, there is little that can compare to the accountability and transparency of democratic institutions like TPL. When Google came to Toronto, they promised a $50M investment in consultation with the city. After considerable pressure, Waterfront Toronto forced Sidewalk Labs to account for a high-level plan on how the $50M would be budgeted, but thus far, Toronto has not received any details on how the money is being spent, what is being accomplished with the money and how the public interest in Toronto is served. By contrast, last year, TPL announced $1.6M in capital investments related to voice-over IP and mobile device improvements. Every line item was documented in full in their 2018 operating budget.

The library system is an obvious choice to host the proposed public, civic trust and other assets required for core digital infrastructure because it is uniquely woven in Toronto’s social, political and cultural fabric. It has centuries of experience curating information based on a universally accepted classification. It has a deep, credible history of knowledge and trust, built from centuries of reflecting the population it serves. It is democratically accountable to all of Toronto, regardless of race, class, immigration status, sexual orientation or gender. It is a decentralized, non-profit, publicly funded entity that curates digital assets, and manages free, equitable, local access. It is a champion for digital literacy, and a vital institution for a healthy, literate, informed citizenry.

TPL itself already owns an extensive digital archive of photos, maps and books. TPL also already handles Internet consumption through Kanopyan online streaming service akin to Netflix for libraries. It doesn’t yet have a mandate to institutionalize Internet production, but there are many global precedents for the library as a central hub for this kind of infrastructure. The University of Milton Keynes built a data catalogue in which most data sources were JSON data feeds. The Digital Public Library of America stores various public interest digital assets. The New York Public Library has a digital API collection. The information contained in these digital systems varies depending on location, need and context, and this malleability aligns neatly with digital infrastructure that must be tailored to the needs of communities at various levels of technology literacy in Toronto.

There is no digital city without a well-funded public digital library.

The Toronto Public Library is one of several public institutions in Toronto that is under attack by private interests that have coalesced around Sidewalk Labs. To effectively combat the threat of Sidewalk Labs, its parent company Google, smart city tech giants, private sector cheerleaders at Waterfront Toronto, and short-sighted politicians like John Tory, we must rethink, rebuild and reclaim our public, social, civic institutions. This requires technology web developers, designers, product managers, middle managers, consultants, executives, venture capitalists and people of good conscience in every digital space in Toronto to organize for democratic reform in the pursuit of a city for all people at all levels of technical literacy. Only then can newly raised money and political capital be put to good use in the public library.

A residents’ vision of Sidewalk Toronto will be Toronto’s biggest pushback yet, and in the midst of Google and Amazon’s push for more power and control, a resident-centric, public vision of digital, institutional Toronto can’t come soon enough. Sidewalk Toronto is a dangerous corporate experiment that foolishly presumes that democratic governments cannot adequately address the challenges of a 21st-century economy. Like Amazon with HQ2, Google needs us to mistrust our government, our public infrastructure and our democratically-controlled institutions. We shouldn’t stop fighting to sustain and improve trust in our political and social systems. But in the meantime, Toronto residents must ensure we retain our trust, philosophically and literally, in world-class assets like our public library.

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