“Public discourse needs to move towards nuanced discussion and debate over panic and outcry.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs has released the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016 for public consultation last week. Since then the public discourse around the draft has occupied the wide spectrum of skepticism that the bill, (should it become an Act) will stifle ‘innovation’, to panic that it will land citizens in jail for geo-tagging selfies. On the other hand, the Minister of State for Home Affairs has gone on record to justify it stating that national security considerations must not be compromised.
What exactly is Geospatial Information and where do we use it?
Geospatial information also known as location information, is information describing the location and names of features beneath, on or above the earth’s surface. In a more technical sense it is a set of geographic coordinates—which can often be gathered, manipulated, and displayed in real time. A computer system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying geographically referenced information is termed as Geographic Information System (GIS). In recent years end user demand has skyrocketed for geospatial information. Global Positioning System (GPS) data and their integration with digital maps has led to the popular handheld or dashboard navigation devices used by millions. In India, we have recently began using geospatial information and tools like GIS for producing floodplain maps, conducting land surveys, mapping forest covers, and responding to natural hazards as well. For policy makers, this type of technology can greatly assist in clarifying complex problems at all levels of governance.Recently we also commissioned the indigenouslydesigned Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)which coupled with the Bhuvan GIS platform will give us the ability to provision and use geospatial information in the Indian region and 1500 km around the Indian mainland.
What is the stated objective of the Bill? Does it specifically look to address social media users?
Does this proposed legislation have any precedents?
The Survey of India (SOI) was established in 1761 and the earliest restriction on not using Indian geospatial information outside India is as old as the SOI itself. In more recent history we can point to the National Map Policy2005, which has provisions for as many as five different types of licenses (namely, Media, Publishing, Digital, Internet and Value Addition) that anyone operating in the domain of geospatial technology in the country has to operate under. There are other policies too, namely:
The Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR), 2012 detailing procedure for issuance of flight clearances for agencies undertaking aerial photography, geophysical surveys, cloud seeding etc.
The Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP – 2001 and 2011) defining the distribution process of satellite images to different category of users.
The National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy-2012 (NDSAP-2012)that aims to provide an enabling provision and platform for proactive and open access to the data generated through public funds available with various arms of Government of India.
The Ministry of Defense (MoD) also controls the level of geospatial data that is available for civilian use and there have been cases of forced blackouts imposed on digital maps by the MoD for installations deemed sensitive to national security.
The draft bill in its present form looks to put together all the existing restrictions on generation and dissemination of geospatial information relating to India under a single umbrella over and above the SOI.
What does the Government plan to achieve through this bill?
The bill in its present form has four important facets.
Acquiring geospatial information in India: The bill prohibits gathering of such information without the prior permission of a security vetting agency and mandates that anyone having such information should apply for a license (permission) to retain this information. Further, no application can be rejected under this provision unless the applicant has been given a reasonable opportunity of presenting his case.
Dissemination, Publication or Distribution of the Geospatial Information of India: The bill has provisions that define how such information is used. It prevents dissemination or visualization of any geospatial information of India either through internet platforms or online services, or publish or distribute any geospatial information of India in any electronic or physical form. This is notably the most controversial clause as it gives a feeling that those framing it have not considered the growth of the internet ecosystem in the country. One of the most important public input to this draft would be to suggest a clear demarcation in the bill between who would be service providers using such data for commercial purposes and end users acting as mere beneficiaries of such services.
Use of Geospatial Information of India outside India: This section states that with exceptions of international conventions, treaty or agreements of which India is signatory, Indian geospatial data cannot be used outside India. This is not a new provision, and has infact been around since the British times.
Wrong depiction of map of India: This section has got the most media attention, it specifies that displaying wrong or false topographic information of India including international boundaries through any platform. Heavy penal provisions for non-compliance have been put forth in the draft bill as well.
What is the regulatory structure proposed in the bill?
The draft bill has provisions for creation of four new agencies. These are expected to take up different responsibilities.
Apex Committee: To be established under the Ministry of Home Affairs to oversee and administer the implementation of this bill in accordance with the prevailing national policies
Security Vetting Authority: Tasked with carrying out security vetting of the Geospatial Information of India in a time bound manner and as per the regulations framed by the Apex Committee. This agency would also be tasked with the responsibility of issuance, suspension and revocation of licenses as well as rejection of applications seeking licenses.
Enforcement Agency: This agency will be tasked with the enforcement of the provisions of the bill. Enforcement Authority shall do surveillance and monitoring, as may be required to enforce the provisions of this bill. It will have the powers of a civil court and all proceedings under it would be deemed to be judicial proceedings.
Appellate Authority: This agency will be adjudicating the appeals against the decisions of the Security Vetting Authority or the Enforcement Authority. An appeal against this agency will directly be done in a high court.
What are the important penal provisions in the draft?
The draft has heavy penal provisions for non-compliance. Illegally acquiring, using or disseminating geospatial data in India or its use outside India will incur a penalty of up to 100 crores and seven years imprisonment. Further, wrong or false representation of topographic information of India including international boundaries will also incur a similar penalty.
What are the concerns with this draft?
The primary area of concern is the definition of ‘Geospatial Information’ in the bill. The definition appears to be an effort to make it all inclusive, which is antithetical to the objective of the bill focusing on national security concerns. It is also contradictory to the approach taken by the National Geospatial Policy (NGP) 2016 that was released along with the draft. The policy aims to empower people through geospatial technologies and enable promotion, adoption and implementation of emerging/state of the art technologies for data acquisition, product generation, solutions and services based on geospatial data. The requirement for licensing of service providers is taking the process backwards as it does not go well with the ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ promise that this NDA government made when it came to power. Further, the institutionalization of four new agencies, couple of them with the powers of civil court will undermine the effort to promote ease of doing business in the country.
What is the way forward for this bill?
The draft is presently open for public consultation and it is expected that like in the case of the draft encryption policy and TRAI papers on net neutrality, public opinion will be channelized to make some prominent changes in the draft if not totally withdrawing it. The draft should be more aligned with the NGP 2016, instead of being divergent with it, as is the case now. Considering the reach and use of geospatial services, the bill should take an approach of specifically excluding certain usage as ‘restricted’ instead of bringing all services under the purview of regulator. The requirement of licensing can be substituted by that of registration and the auditing of registered platforms can be done by an independent agency. This will put the onus of securing national interest with the agency concerned and not on every application or platform as the case is now. Further, provisions of penalties need to be aligned to the nature of crime and focus of the bill should exclusively be on preventing misuse of geospatial information by those with malicious intent. Lastly, the framers of the bill should give due consideration to the fact that technology progresses at a pace faster than the legislation regulating it and hence the bill should have provisions for review of to keep the bill more dynamic in nature.
While the need to regulate the use of geospatial services so that they are not misused is undeniable, the bill in its present form is very vague in its wording and leaves a lot of scope for institutional misuse. The process of public consultation has shown some good results particularly in case of the access-neutrality issue and it would not be wrong to hope that nuanced discussion should drive this process as against the knee jerk reactions seen in the initial public discourse around the draft as of now.