An Overview Of The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill

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The Ministry of Home Affairs wants a licensing system for every map made or displayed of the subcontinent.

A geolocation enabled selfie from your phone camera, a photographer taking a photo of the hills from a helicopter, a start-up using Google Maps to deliver food or offer taxi services – all of them would need a license, and vetting by a security agency to be legal in India if a draft bill becomes an act.

The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016 (Draft) could affect every single person or entity who might make or use geospatial data – inside or outside India. And the proposed penalty for noncompliance is between one crore to a hundred crores ($155,000 – $15.5 million).

Its definition of geospatial information is broad.

Geospatial imagery or data acquired through space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles including value addition; or graphical or digital data depicting natural or manmade physical features, phenomenon or boundaries of the earth or any information related thereto including surveys, charts, maps, terrestrial photos referenced to a coordinate system and having attributes.

It’s a bill that has industry, internet organisations and civil society worried stiff. Many of India’s fastest growing start-ups rely on geospatial information – to deliver food, packages, and other services. Government institutions from the Union Ministry of Water Resources to the Bangalore Police have all used mapping technologies to aid their functioning.

But the draft bill is quite clear that “Every person shall be liable to punishment under this Act” including “persons in the service of the Government, wherever they may be” and “persons on ships and aircrafts, registered in India, wherever they may be.”

National Security

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In the wake of the Pathankot terror attacks on Indian soldiers in January 2016, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced its intention to regulate all geospatial data in the country. The intention was to prevent the circulation of sensitive information – after reports emerged that showed how the Pathankot terrorists used Google Maps and Facebook to coordinate their attack.

The Bill was also prompted by the Al-Jazeera controversy in 2015, where the Qatari news channel displayed an incorrect map of India’s borders with Pakistan. Al-Jazeera was subsequently banned in the subcontinent for five days.

Much of India is already visible on mapping and satellite-imagery websites such as Google Maps, as are sensitive border regions. In 2007, Google agreed to blur out sensitive information from its maps. The company has also been banned from running its “Street View” service in India – which aimed to create a 360-degree panoramic capture of major tourist locations.

However, the MHA seems to have acted alone in framing this bill. Just a few days after the Draft Bill was released, the Department of Science and Technology released their own “National Geospatial Policy.” The DST views are significantly different. Below is one of the principles listed in the DST document:

Geospatial data of any resolution being disseminated through agencies and service providers, both internationally and nationally be treated as unclassified and made available and accessible by Indian Mapping and imaging agencies.

It’s not just the Department of Science that is keen on making geospatial information more open. In January 2017, the Survey of India celebrated its 250th anniversary by hosting the Geospatial World Forum in Hyderabad, India. Industry leaders from across the world attended – and predicted the $3 billion Indian geospatial industry to reach $20 billion in value by 2020.

Importantly, the bill will at best be able to regulate matters within India. Satellite images acquired abroad (or via a VPN service) will remain accessible online – making it an ad-hoc solution at best.

Opposition, stall and looming uncertainty

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The bill met with stringent opposition on social media. Users started a SaveTheMap campaign, providing a template for those concerned to mail the Ministry of Home Affairs – and feedback was sent.

The Federation of Indian Commerce and Industry (FICCI) released its recommendations on the Bill. These include replacing the proposed licensing system with an online registration, excluding citizens from the purview, removing the clause for retrospective regulation (a common industry complaint), and clearly articulating what constitutes sensitive data.

Notably, FICCI supports India’s position on the wrongful depiction of national borders. The result is that Indian maps will continue to include parts of Kashmir that are no longer under Indian control. In response, Pakistan filed a complaint with the United Nations – which India rebutted on the grounds that it was an internal matter.

Two sessions of Parliament have convened since the Bill was released on May 4, 2016. After the initial fallout of the Pathankot attack faded, the bill was put into cold storage. But the ongoing Monsoon session may well see the Bill being introduced for debate on the Lok Sabha floor.

It’s worth noting that there already exist laws regulating the creation of and access to the sensitive material:  the Official Secret’s Act of 1923, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1961, Section 69 of IT Act 2000 and the National Map Policy of 2005. It is already illegal to display an incorrect map of India’s borders within India.

And the state has other monitoring mechanisms to keep an eye on map-users. In April 2017, the Archeological Survey of India released more than 3,000 topographical maps ‘for free’ on its website. The catch was, you needed to enter your Aadhar number to access it. Through such restrictions, the government can keep a tab on who is accessing what information – at least through its own portals.

By strengthening existing laws, India can make the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill irrelevant while maintaining control over national security. But if the Bill is passed without changes, it bodes ill for journalists, civil servants, businesses and individuals alike.

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