Geospatial Bill

Mapping under scanner

Print edition : July 22, 2016

The ghat road leading to Dharamsala and Mcleodganj in Himachal Pradesh. Clicking an aerial picture of a landscape may become a punishable offence. Photo: K.R. Deepak

The terrain on the outskirts of New Delhi. Photo: K.R. Deepak

The proposed Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, which seeks to make graphic depiction and sharing of geographic coordinates of India obtained through aerial platforms a punishable offence, draws widespread criticism.

THE Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, which has been put up for discussion in the public domain by the Ministry of Home Affairs, may severely impact on the utilitarian values of information technology, which mobile phone users have taken for granted. For instance, seemingly harmless acts such as clicking the picture of a landscape from an airborne aircraft’s window seat and posting it on Instagram or sharing it on WhatsApp, may become punishable offence if prior permission is not obtained for the same.

Geospatial information, according to the Bill, means “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 man-made physical features, phenomenon or boundaries of the earth or any information related thereto, including surveys, charts, maps, terrestrial photos referenced to a co-ordinate system and having attributes”. A person found to have stored such images on a device or in print may face a fine of up to Rs.100 crore, or a seven-year prison term, unless otherwise permitted. The punishment for taking a picture is disproportionate to the “offence” when compared with, say, the punishment for sexual harassment, which is up to three years of imprisonment. This Bill, if enacted, will be retrospective in nature, which means that all those who have already committed the “act” of clicking or storing or printing such images need to queue up before an authority to obtain a licence in order to avoid criminal proceedings. It is not clear how the government proposes to monitor each and every smartphone or device with an inbuilt GPS (Global Positioning System). What is also not clear is the Central government’s larger agenda: whether it wants to integrate technology with the lives of people or restrict its capabilities. It is not clear how the Digital India dream that Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps talking about is to be achieved if such a regressive legislation is passed.

At this stage, the proposed law also seems to be at odds with businesses using location-specific information, which have become a part of the daily lives of many Indians. Mobile applications that need a GPS—from food delivery platforms to cab services—rely heavily on geospatial data. Many applications that allow online train/bus/flight ticket booking use location-specific data.

What triggered the proposed legislation was the depiction of Jammu and Kashmir as part of Pakistan and Arunachal Pradesh as part of China in some social networking sites. With this in mind, the Bill aims to regulate acquisition, dissemination, publication and distribution of geospatial information that is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity of India. The Mumbai terror attack of November 26, 2008, is repeatedly recalled in defence of the Bill. There is no gainsaying the importance of protecting sensitive information to safeguard the country and its citizens against acts of terrorism. But, ironically, the Bill penalises the citizen as it applies to citizens of India outside India, persons in the service of the government, wherever they may be, and persons on ships and aircraft, registered in India, wherever they may be. Interestingly, the Bill does not include non-Indians in its ambit, who may misuse spatial data to harm the nation’s security and sovereignty. They are free to acquire, disseminate, publish or distribute information without any restriction whatsoever.

The Bill is also at odds with the National Geospatial Policy (NGP), 2016. “Taking into consideration the increasing growth of the use of Geospatial Data, Products, Services and Solutions (GDPSS)”, the comprehensive NGP was promulgated in April “to empower people through geospatial technologies”. The NGP says: “The wide availability of satellite data and digital forms of map information through networks has rendered the erstwhile policies of restricting map information to citizens obsolete in many countries. The mass markets for spatial information has become a reality and this trend is likely to grow.” The policy is applicable to geospatial data-based products, solutions and services offered by governments, private organisations, non-governmental organisations and individuals. According to the policy, all geospatial data, products, solutions and services will be categorised as restricted, unrestricted and open on the basis of features and not on the basis of their geography.

It is pertinent to note that map-making and distribution of maps in India have always been regulated by the Survey of India, which had the sole right to draw maps. The restrictions were never implemented stringently. According to the NGP: “The National Map Policy, 2005, defines the scope, distribution and access of digital Survey of India topographic maps to user groups without jeopardising national security.”

Unlike the proposed legislation, the National Map Policy does not have a blanket order but specifies that wrong borders and sensitive areas should not be shown on maps. It does not place many restrictions on the use of open series maps (as opposed to defence series maps) that otherwise conform to the provisions of the National Map Policy, which can be used by anybody to overlay spatial data on the map.

The Civil Aviation Requirement, 2012, according to the NGP, “details procedures for issuance of flight clearances for agencies undertaking aerial photography, geophysical surveys, cloud seeding, etc”. The Remote Sensing Data Policy (2001 & 2011) defines “the distribution process of satellite images to different category of users”. The National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, 2012, provides “an enabling provision and platform for proactive and open access to the data generated through public funds available with various departments or organisations of the Government of India”.

Legal experts fear that if the provisions regulating map-making and sharing are enforced, innovative map-making technologies and location-based services that drive people’s lives today will be badly affected.

Submissions on the Bill

The government has received several submissions, including sharp criticisms, on the draft Bill. The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy has submitted that the Bill placed serious obstructions in the path of independent environmental research and informed and effective public participation in environmental decision-making. Arguing that the right to access information and to participate in environmental decision-making are integral components of the right to environment upheld by the Supreme Court under Article 21 of the Constitution, and also affirmed by the High Courts, the National Green Tribunal and the Central Information Commission have demanded that the Bill be withdrawn, or at the very least, that the use of geospatial information for the purposes of participation in environmental decision-making be exempted from its provisions.

The digital and telecom resource centre, Medianama, has suggested that the Bill be renamed the Sensitive Geospatial Information Regulation Bill and that its scope be limited to the depiction of information deemed sensitive from the perspective of national security. It said: “Given that the devices and services... would generate billions of location data points every second, it is impractical and impossible for any security vetting agency to track this data.” It wanted a clear definition of national security. “This Bill should not be applicable to those who use geospatial information or have nothing to do with the depiction of maps. It should be applicable only to mapping companies for their depiction of mapping data, and for the data that they themselves [and not users] represent on a map, as well as how mapping companies represent data within India. As intermediaries, they can’t be responsible for data that users generate. As explained above, users cannot be held responsible for data they inadvertently generate,” it said.

According to the Internet Democracy Project, the Bill will be disastrous for businesses, communities and individuals. “A range of non-commercial applications of Geographic Information Systems will be hit. Humanitarian efforts have been revolutionised in the aftermath of the availability of high-quality satellite imagery. This has led to the mapping of areas after earthquakes and floods hit areas such as Nepal and Chennai [Tamil Nadu], and enabled volunteers to provide information about the condition of roads and the availability of relief. These cases of use would not have been possible with the current Bill. By covering practically any visual representation of information about coordinates in its ambit, the Bill will impede several academic uses of maps in fields such as architecture,” it said.

The Internet Democracy Project has pointed out that the Bill disproportionately affected many marginalised sections—such as persons with disabilities (PWDs) and forest-dwelling communities—for whom mapping has been a crucial tool in recording and using information about their surroundings and for demanding their rights. “Maps are an integral part of assistive devices, and help PWDs commute and find their offices, homes, places of recreation, etc. By regulating map use, the government is essentially pushing the situation of PWDs back by 20 years, putting PWDs back at the mercy of strangers on the street. [Similarly] rights over homestead land that have been occupied for generations were not recognised before the passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in 2006. The procedure provided in the hard-won Forest Rights Act [FRA], which recognises claims to forest areas by communities who have resided there for generations, relies on mapping as one of the core evidences. The introduction of the Bill poses a big question on the claims process provided for in the FRA, as acquisition of geospatial information by any person is illegal under the proposed Bill. The broad definition of “geospatial information” draws within its sweep hand-drawn maps that include natural features and landmarks referenced to a coordinate system. The definition also includes the acquisition and use of GPS information. Both of these mapping techniques are widely used in the process of filing individual and community forest rights claims.”

Pakistan’s objection

Objections to the Bill came from an unusual quarter: Pakistan. A stakeholder, Pakistan raised concerns with the United Nations Secretary-General and the President of the U.N. Security Council over the depiction of Jammu and Kashmir as part of Indian territory, which, according to it, is factually incorrect and legally untenable. It called upon the U.N. to uphold the Security Council resolutions and urged India to stop acts that violated international laws. India hit back by saying that the Bill was an internal matter and that Pakistan had no locus standi in the matter.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said: “The proposed Bill is an entirely internal legislative matter of India, since the whole of the State of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. Pakistan or any other party has no locus standi in the matter. The government firmly rejects Pakistan’s repeated and increasing attempts to impose on the international community matters that India has always been open to address bilaterally with Pakistan.”

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