Ever since the internet started empowering ordinary citizens with tools that democratise information, governments across the world, including India, have been looking at ways and means to control the online world through some form of regulation. This has given rise to draconian laws and provisions, such as Section 66 (A) of the Information Technology Act 2000, which was misused so often that the Supreme Court had to step in and scrap the law. The new draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill 2016, proposed by the ministry of home affairs, falls into this category of blunderbuss legislation. The main problem with this Bill is that it is vague, has a wide remit and leaves too much room for subjective interpretation — a situation tailor-made for potential misuse and harassment of common citizens. Under the proposed law, anyone who wishes to publish any geospatial information on India will need a licence from a security vetting authority. In addition to data acquired through satellites and other aerial platforms, geospatial information has been defined in such a manner that it encompasses even photographs taken by individuals depicting natural or manmade physical features. So the law could be interpreted in a manner that would make it mandatory for individuals to take a licence if they want to click pictures of the Taj Mahal with their smartphones and upload it to a social networking site. The penalties for failure to obtain a licence are severe — fines of up to ₹100 crore, or up to 7 years in jail. Clearly, the policy has been ill-thought out because if a majority of Indians decided to obtain licences, no single agency has the capability required to handle all this data.
The ministry of home affairs has defended the proposed Bill by arguing that it is aimed at ensuring that companies such as Google depict India’s territorial boundaries correctly. For example, there have been instances in the past when Google has shown Arunachal Pradesh as a disputed territory. The Centre is also concerned about satellite images of sensitive areas being freely available on digital maps. These concerns may be valid from a national security point of view but it does not justify promulgating an overreaching law that requires scrutiny of all digital images taken by individual citizens. The proposed Bill is also contrary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for Digital India and Smart Cities, both of which require a huge amount of geospatial data. If companies and individuals involved in these projects have to take licences and permits, then another important reform goal — reducing red tape — would come a cropper.
India does need a geospatial policy to protect its national interest but the current draft Bill is a non-starter. Perhaps, the Bill drafted by the department of science of technology offers a better starting point as it at least recognises the different uses of geospatial data. While adequate measures to protect security concerns must be taken, the Centre should not resort to using a sledgehammer to crack open a peanut.