Adrian Short

Is Intersection part of Google?

Is Intersection, the lead company behind InLink UK, part of Google? Related to Google? Something to do with Google? A Google kind of thing?

InLink is keen to distance themselves from Google as much as possible. In planning application documents to support 17 proposed InLink kiosks in Bristol (via Adblock Bristol), the company writes (tellingly, in the “Privacy and Data Protection” section):

InLinks are not a Google product. The ‘InLinkUK from BT’ service is provided through a joint venture between Intersection, a smart cities technology and media company, and out-of-home media company Primesight, in exclusive partnership with BT in the UK. Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet (the parent company of Google) company, is a minority investor in Intersection and a third party to InLinkUK.

An earlier statement from InLink UK was provided to me by the chair of Wandsworth Council’s planning applications committee, Councillor Will Sweet (December 2017), who seemed to be trying to reassure me about something in response to this email:

We do not share any data, in any form, with Google who are not part of the joint venture of InLinkUK or involved in the operation of InLinks in the UK

When people like me refer to InLinks as “Google spy kiosks”, we’re using Google as a shorthand for Alphabet Inc.. Google was restructured in 2015, with the “old” Google being renamed as Alphabet and becoming the holding company for the whole group of companies, and the “new” Google becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary providing all the ad-driven Google-branded products that we know and love. There are no Alphabet-branded products, so the name has little recognition among the wider public.

As InLink themselves acknowledge, Sidewalk Labs is “an Alphabet company”. Sidewalk Labs was formed in 2015 by Google (now Alphabet) CEO Larry Page and Dan Doctoroff, previously deputy mayor of New York City and CEO of Bloomberg LP. Doctoroff became Sidewalk Labs’ CEO, a position he still holds today.

Here’s the first paragraph of Dan Doctoroff’s official biography at his other job:

One of the world’s leading urban visionaries and a champion of leveraging technology and data for social change, Dan is Chairman of Intersection, responsible for overall leadership. He is also the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation company and lead investor in Intersection, which he founded with Google to focus on improving city life for residents, businesses, and governments alike.

So the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary, is also “responsible for overall leadership” of Intersection, a company that InLink UK, whose lead partner is Intersection, describes as a “third party”.

It’s notable that the first paragraph of the official bio of Intersection’s chairman finds it necessary to mention Doctoroff’s role at supposed “third party” company Sidewalk Labs. This is the second most important thing that Intersection wants you to know about their chairman.

Note how Sidewalk Labs is a “minority investor in Intersection” according to InLink UK’s planning document but the “lead investor in Intersection” in Intersection’s chairman’s official bio. Of course, both these things can be true (and presumably are true) at the same time. Sidewalk Labs is the single biggest investor in Intersection but owns less than 50% of the company. When Intersection is trying to reassure councils about “privacy and data protection” they downplay their relationship to surveillance giant Google. But when they’re trying to impress potential clients and partners, often surveillance capitalists themselves, they play it up.

In October 2016, Intersection CEO Al Kelly left the company. In his absence, Dan Doctoroff served as interim CEO of Intersection, while also serving as CEO of Sidewalk Labs. In May 2017, Intersection named Ari Buchalter as their new CEO. Presumably this allowed Doctoroff to spend more time chief executiving Sidewalk Labs while still doing his “overall leadership” thing at Intersection. For eight months in 2016 and 2017, Sidewalk Labs (“an Alphabet company”) and Intersection were literally run by the same person on a day-to-day basis.

If Intersection really is in any meaningful sense independent of Sidewalk Labs, aren’t its other investors entitled to ask whether this represents a major conflict of interest, given that they operate in identical markets? But of course they’re not concerned, being happy nonetheless that Doctoroff can provide “overall leadership” to Intersection while running Sidewalk Labs day-to-day.

While it’s certainly no secret, it might come as a surprise to anyone reading InLink’s planning documents above, stressing the “third party” relationship between InLink (a partnership in which Intersection is the lead partner) and Sidewalk Labs, that Intersection and Sidewalk Labs share the same headquarters. Both Sidewalk Labs and Intersection like to stress the “urban” focus of their businesses above the “technology” part. So what would they make of the relationship between one company and another, where the smaller one literally lives in the pocket of the larger one?

Now of course, many large corporate office buildings have multiple tenants. And it would be ridiculous to assert that those various tenants necessarily have any close corporate or operational relationship. But the Sidewalk Labs/Intersection HQ is more than just a handy coincidence. They apparently share the same lease. Here’s how their landlords at Hudson Yards in New York City announced the deal in January 2016:

Related Companies and Oxford Properties Group today announced that Intersection and Sidewalk Labs will locate their corporate headquarters at 10 Hudson Yards. Intersection, the urban experience company formed in 2015 as the result of a merger between Control Group and Titan, and its lead investor, Sidewalk Labs, have leased over 67,000 square feet of office space joining Coach, Inc., The Boston Consulting Group, L’Oréal USA, SAP and VaynerMedia at the site’s first office building.

This thrifty arrangement doesn’t just save on the rent. Because Sidewalk Labs and Intersection share the same “overall leader”, they can double up on the canned quote in the press release:

“Our focus is on using technology to improve life in cities,” said Sidewalk Labs CEO and Intersection Chairman Dan Doctoroff. “As a leading data-driven, connected neighborhood, Hudson Yards is the perfect fit for us.”

Two companies, one bossquote.

The press release goes on:

Intersection and Sidewalk Labs’ decision to open its office at Hudson Yards is a testament to the west side neighborhood’s position as the City’s most quantified and connected community and a hub for media and technology.

We see how the two companies nonetheless are treated as singular, opening “its office” rather than “their offices”.

And buried in the boring details is all the evidence we need that this is a single lease serving both companies, with the “two” tenants sharing the same advisers on the deal:

In the lease transaction, Intersection and Sidewalk Labs were represented by Michael R. Laginestra, Rocco Laginestra, Chris Corrinet and Chris Hogan of CBRE. Related and Oxford were represented by Robert Alexander of CBRE and Stephen Winter of Related.

Now we can all split hairs about the semantic and factual differences between Alphabet, Sidewalk Labs and Google. But that’s not the real issue here. The issue is the relationship between Intersection, which runs the key technology/software/data services part of InLink UK, and Sidewalk Labs/Google/Alphabet. When applying for very valuable planning permission in a formal regulatory process, InLink UK describes Sidewalk Labs as a “third party”. Yet that third party shares the same leadership in the person of Dan Doctoroff, shares the same office headquarters on a single lease and clearly have such a close relationship that it’s impossible to imagine the two companies competing against each other, as “third parties” are entirely free to do.

Given the obvious concern over privacy and data protection and the apparent links between InLink UK and world-leading surveillance business Sidewalk Labs/Google/Alphabet, its time the company started telling a straight story about who they actually serve.

6 Apr 2018