Mapping anything and everything?

Anahita Mathai | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 13, 2016

Pie in the sky: And its myriad dimensions

The row over geospatial information rules highlights the need for open source data and transparency in the sector

The draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill released by the Ministry of Home Affairs earlier this month has been causing waves in the media and online, with accusations flying that the government is being unreasonable, and campaigns starting to ‘Save the Map’. Geographical boundaries have always been a sensitive topic in India, but does this proposed regulation go further than its predecessors?

The preamble to the Bill clearly states that it is intended to regulate “geospatial information of India which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity of India…”

So far, nothing objectionable, except that national security exceptions — which restrict many rights — tend to be heavy-handed. The acquisition and distribution of geospatial information could easily be linked to the right to freedom of expression and the right to information, to name two.

Set aside for now the issue of India’s international boundaries. This is an area where the government’s voice is always going to be the loudest and where they are least likely to budge — as The Economist and Al-Jazeera can testify. What about everything else?

The meaning of it all

The Bill’s definition (under Section 2) of geospatial information is expansive, both in terms of what it constitutes (“graphical or digital data depicting natural or man-made physical features, phenomenon…or any information related thereto”) and how it is acquired (“space or aerial platforms… terrestrial photos”, etc.). It’s unclear about temporarily creating/accessing geospatial information, such as that which is stored in the cloud.

The definition is so wide-ranging it seems to cover aspects of life in Digital India which have become second nature to those with smartphones: checking in on social media sites, tagging your vacation spot in a picture, sharing your location with friends through a messaging service, entering your location on an app to hail a cab, find an ATM, locate a toilet, order something; the list goes on.

These may seem like conveniences, but real-time and accurate geospatial information is valuable for other uses too. Humanitarian relief operations during the recent flooding in Chennai and the earthquake in Nepal; panic buttons on taxi apps (and those which will soon be mandatory on all phones in India); these are just two examples of how allowing users to create, modify and interact with geospatial information can keep them safe.

Businesses, though inconvenienced, may be able to wait three months for a license, but it is not practical for individuals. The Bill does not give any indication of what the license fees would be — but it stands to reason that while the Googles and Microsofts of this world might be able to pay, many others could be priced out of (or at the very least discouraged from) using geospatial information.

Going back wrongly

The retrospective applicability of the Bill, and its attempt to police everyone, in India and without, are also problematic. In order to enforce the Bill, an authority will be given leave to access “any computer resource” while investigation possible contraventions of the Bill. It also ropes in intermediaries, with the authority allowed to “direct any person in charge of, other otherwise concerned with the operation of” computer resources to hand over information (Section 18). All this is possible if the authority has “reasonable cause to suspect” that the Bill has been violated in some way.

Given that the Bill will apply to geospatial information which a user already owns, suspected violations of the new Bill could be nearly endless.

In a country which lacks comprehensive privacy protection, and which is still grappling with data protection issues, this kind of surveillance raises concerns, especially when there is uncertainty about what kind of oversight (if any) such surveillance would have.

The measures set out in the draft Bill seem to run counter to a number of government programmes, including those pushing for a digital India, smart cities, and better transportation systems. It also seems to contradict one of the stated objectives of the National Map Policy (due to be updated), which is “to promote the use of geospatial knowledge and intelligence through partnerships and other mechanisms by all sections of the society and work towards a knowledge-based society”.

Government representatives have already said that they don’t want to hurt business innovation. The exorbitant fines for contravening the Bill give some indication that individuals are not the target of this regulation, but rather big companies and publications, which the government has had well-publicised problems with in the past.

It stands to reason that detailed images of armed forces installations and sensitive facilities should not be freely available online, as some currently are. It is also perfectly reasonable to strive for accuracy of geospatial information. However, this doesn’t come through in a Bill which lacks both nuance and clarity, as the current media furore indicates.

There are better ways to regulate geospatial information.

Need a balanced approach

Just before the draft Bill came out, the draft National Geospatial Policy (NGP) was released to little fanfare. The differences are clear from the very first sentence: the NGP seeks to “empower people through geospatial technologies”.

The NGP seems to have a better grasp of the role played by geospatial information in daily life. It starts out with an open access policy, with only certain types of data (or data pertaining to certain locations) requiring registration or special permission.

It also greatly reduces the amount of time required to get such permission: 30 days to the draft Bill’s 90. The problem is that the policy will never be legally binding in the way that the draft Bill could be.

There must be some way to reconcile the ideas behind the NGP with the national security aims underlying the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill. National security will always be a priority for India, but to take full advantage of technological innovation, a more balanced approach is required.

Leveraging open source data and embracing transparency will benefit both government programmes and businesses as well as other initiatives that may become useful in the future.

The writer is a researcher with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

Published on May 13, 2016
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