Geospatial Bill needs to follow approach of Draft National Geospatial Policy

The new draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, (the Geospatial Bill) released by the Ministry of Home Affairs early this month has been facing widespread criticism ever since its release.

By Asheeta Regidi

The new draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, (the Geospatial Bill) released by the Ministry of Home Affairs early this month has been facing widespread criticism ever since its release. The Geospatial Bill actually follows close on the heels of the little known draft National Geospatial Policy, 2016 (the NGP) which was released by the Department of Science and Technology in April, 2016. The terms of the NGP are in sharp contrast to the highly regressive approach of taken by the Geospatial Bill.

How the Geospatial Bill makes apps like Google Maps impracticable

The Geospatial Bill requires licensing for several acts which are very fundamental to the use of geospatial data today. Consider how Google Maps uses geolocational data. Google Maps creates its maps from mapping data sourced from third parties. It also collects geolocational data of individuals using it. For example, a person using Google Maps to drive down to a place will be sending his geolocation and receiving geolocational data throughout the drive. Google collects and uses this data for several purposes, such as providing information on traffic congestion, informing people of landmarks, etc. Under the Geospatial Bill, the following acts are illegal if done without a license:

Every acquisition of geospatial data: Google’s acquisition of geospatial data through Indian users, the collection of Indian territorial data by the third parties providing mapping data to Google or the collection of geolocational data by every individual’s smartphone for Google Maps, each of these acts is illegal. Every one, be it Google, the third parties or individuals, will need a license.

Past acquisitions: You need to apply for a license even if you acquired geospatial data in the past. This will include practically every person who has ever used the internet.

Possession: The mere possession of geospatial data is punishable. For example, if you stored Google Maps offline, you can’t retain it without a license.

Dissemination: If you send your location on Google Maps to another person, you are disseminating data. You will need a license for this. This also applies to every time you geotag a photograph or ‘check-in’ to a place on Facebook.

Dissemination Outside India: Every time you send geolocational data to Google Maps, Google being outside India, you need prior permission.

Wrong Depiction of a Map: If Google doesn’t update its maps on time, such as not updating the Indian map to reflect the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh split, it will be liable.

Every time you open the Google Maps app, you are creating, downloading and distributing geolocational data. Each of these acts will need separate authorisation from the government every single time, or a penalty of upto 100 crores can be imposed. It is clear that if the Geospatial Bill comes into force, using Google Maps will become impossible. The Geospatial Bill sounds the death knell for all uses of geolcoational data as we know it.

The Draft NGP has a much broader approach to geospatial data:

The very aim of the NGP is to ‘empower people through geospatial technologies’. The NGP takes into account the multiple sources from which geospatial data is made available today, such as crowdsourcing, surveying, remote sensing, mobile phones, location based services, geospatial web services, etc. The NGP also takes into account mass markets of geospatial data that exist today (for example, Google Maps sourcing mapping data from third parties) and the likelihood of growth of the actors involved in the creation, distribution and acquisition of such information. The NGP aims to draw out a policy which makes good quality geospatial data easily available and accessible to anyone interested in using it. This intention is in sharp contrast with that of the Geospatial Bill, which restricts every single act in relation to geospatial data. With this broad perspective in mind, the NGP lays down the following propositions:

Open access to geospatial data: Geospatial data is to be made available to all users, including government departments and the private sector. It proposes a classification of geospatial data under three categories: data that can be freely accessed without registration or authorisation, data that will need simple registration and payment of a fee, and data that will need special permission for access. This is a much better approach, unlike the Geospatial Bill, which mandates licensing to access and use any and all geospatial data.

Clearances and permissions: Where clearances and permissions are necessary, this must be granted through a single window system within 30 days.

Classification based on features: Geospatial data will no longer be classified based on regions, but on features. For example, military installations will be blurred out.

Permissibility of ground based data collection: Ground based data collection for surveying and mapping is to be permitted, based on guidelines issued by the government.

Role of private sector and startups encouraged: The NGP greatly encourages the involvement of the private sector in ‘all spheres of the geospatial domain’. Research and development activities by the private sector are to be encouraged. Startups intending to use geospatial data are also to be encouraged.

Governments to maintain updated database: Governments should maintain an updated database of geospatial data which meets international quality standards, through which these three categories of data can be accessed.

The NGP does not talk of restricting the creation, use or distribution of geospatial data, but of making it easily available. Restrictions will only be imposed w.r.t. restricted data. For example, mapping of border regions and military or nuclear features has always been prohibited, and will continue to be so. Similarly, high resolution satellite images will come under the restricted category. This still leaves a huge amount of geospatial data free, such as low resolution images and ground based data, which can be used by people and various actors like Google Maps. The free use of geospatial data by startups under the proposed licensing regime of the Geospatial Bill would have been impossible. This free use is recognised and in fact encouraged under the NGP. The NGP, however, even if finalised will remain a mere policy, and it will be left to the government to carry out the intentions set out in it. The Geospatial Bill, on the other hand, can become a law that can be enforced.

The Geospatial Bill needs a better understanding of new age geospatial data

It appears that the serious security lapses exposed through the use of geolocational data in the Pathankot attacks spurred the government into drafting this Bill. However, the Bill seems to have simply compiled existing provisions of the law applicable to maps, made them applicable to geospatial data and the internet, and applied heavy penalties. For example, existing laws made maps available on a licensing scheme. This has been converted into a licensing scheme for geospatial data. Similarly, the existing laws prohibit the export of maps outside India. The Bill similarly prohibits the ‘dissemination’ of geospatial data outside India. In the highly interconnected world we live in today, where geospatial data is created and spread every second, such provisions are obsolete. The knowledge and understanding of geospatial data and maps as they are used today, a knowledge which is clearly shown in the drafting of the NGP, is missing here. Thankfully under the Indian legal system, draft laws are first made open to public comment. It is hoped that the government will take note of the huge outcry against this Bill and redraft it.

The author is a lawyer with a specialisation in cyber laws and has co-authored books on the subject.

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