Insights into Editorial: A licence to kill innovation
10 May 2016
The Ministry of Home Affairs recently released a draft of “The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016.” The draft Bill came under scathing criticism on social media and other online platforms for its draconian features. In the light of this, the government now has proposed to review this bill.
- The Bill basically aims to regularize critical information on Maps services that affect “the security, sovereignty and integrity” of the country.
Highlights of the Bill:
- According to the draft, it will be mandatory to take permission from a government authority before acquiring, disseminating, publishing or distributing any geospatial information of India.
- The draft Bill will ensure that online platforms like Google will have to apply for a licence to run Google Maps or Google Earth in India.
- The bill also says that no person shall depict, disseminate, publish or distribute any wrong or false topographic information of India including international boundaries through internet platforms or online services or in any electronic or physical form.
- Also, any addition or creation of anything that has to do with any geospatial information – or location – within the territory of India will need the permission of the government or, in this case, a Security Vetting Authority.
- The bill also imposes hefty fines for illegal acquisition, dissemination, publication and distribution of geospatial information of India.
What does Security Vetting Authority do?
It grants licenses to organisations/individuals who want to use geospatial data. It will check the content and data provided and make sure it is well within national policies, “with the sole objective of protecting national security, sovereignty, safety and integrity”
What does “geospatial information” mean?
According to the draft it means:
- Geospatial imagery or data acquired through space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles.
- Graphical or digital data depicting natural or man-made physical features, phenomenon or boundaries of the earth.
- Any information related thereto including surveys, charts, maps, terrestrial photos referenced to a co-ordinate system and having attributes.
Why this is a not so good move?
- The proposed bill brings back licence raj. For each map of India or its regions created by any company will have to be vetted by a committee. There will a fee that will have to be paid and the licence will have to be sought.
- The proposed bill makes “every person” associated with the business offering map service an accessory to a crime in case of any violation, intended or unintended.
- The proposed bill effectively ends crowd-sourcing. This means when you see your area in Google Maps and want to fix a mistake, you won’t be able to do that. The proposed bill also affects the real-time gathering of geo data. This too will make the map services almost useless.
- Companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple, which have millions of Indians using their maps, would be hit directly by the legislation if it is pushed through. Firms that depend on these maps to provide their services, such as Uber, Zomato and Ola, too would be affected.
- The security vetting authority removes sensitive zones from the data and takes about two-three months or even more to respond, which is an unrealistic timeline for people working with digital data. There is also apprehension that the Bill will undermine rescue and humanitarian efforts, such as during disasters like the Nepal earthquake.
- Also of concern is the lack of court’s jurisdiction in matters related to the proposed legislation.
- It’s not just app developers that will require a license. As per the current draft, every end user of these apps who does things like shares their location with a friend, posts a status update, or uploads a photo with meta-data, is effectively creating mapping information and will have to get one too.
- It’s also likely to do little to stop terrorist attacks. Since the rules in the bill only apply within India and to Indians outside the country, it won’t restrict foreign military forces and terrorists beyond India’s borders from sourcing map data from elsewhere.
- What is worrisome is that it provides for stringent punishment ranging from a fine of up to 100 crore rupees to a 7-year jail term, for as much as publishing a wrong map of India. Since the print, electronic and digital media use a lot of easily available data, the new regulations could spell doom for the industry as it would push up the costs of acquiring such basic information and also make media liable for heavy fines and imprisonment in case of even an oversight.
- The new law also conflicts with the provisions of the Information Technology (IT) Act 2000, because both it and the earlier IT Act deal with not just physical but also digital data. Furthermore, the IT Act is a special law and states that in case of conflict between it and any other law, then it will prevail. However, the draft geospatial bill has also been given special status under Section 33, stating that its provisions will have effect over inconsistencies in other laws. In other words, the interplay between the new law and the IT Act has not been properly worked out.
What can be done?
- An alternative modality that can serve national security purposes would involve switching to a simple registration-based system that doesn’t make the acquisition of a licence a precondition to using data. However, such a registration-based system is also fraught with danger in a framework that insists on scrutinising the credentials of every end user.
- A clear distinction must be made between the producers and consumers of geospatial data. In order to not constrict the innovation ecosystem, the definition of consumers must be as wide as possible.
- It may be okay to require all publishers of geospatial data to register with the security-vetting authority and provide an online window through which the authority can conduct an audit of their data. The vetting authority can go through the data and raise an objection if it finds anything objectionable, and it can do this in its own time. In the meantime the data can be used by end users and updated by the publisher as required.
Hence, the government now has to strike a balance between the protection of its national interest and ensuring that the data gets used for the propagation of e-commerce and m-commerce.