India's Proposed 'Geospatial Information Regulation Bill' Would Shut Down Most Map-Based Services There
from the who-knew-geography-was-so-exciting? dept
It's obvious that technology changes our lives, but alongside the expected developments, there are some strange and unexpected ones, too. For example, half a century ago, who would have predicted that boring old copyright would have such a massive impact on everyday life, even to the extent of redefining what ownership means? Similarly, when mobile phones first appeared, few realized later iterations that included powerful computers would elevate another dry and dusty area -- cartography -- into a key aspect of modern technology. And just as copyright already has unavoidable implications for personal agency, so cartography is beginning to impact political power. That can be clearly seen in Indian proposals for a new law, summarized here by The Next Web:
The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill (PDF), which is currently only a draft and is open to feedback until June 4, will make it illegal to publish map-related information or even share location data without a license from a government vetting agency. Those found violating its rules will face a fine of at least Rs. 10 million (roughly $150,000), going up to Rs. 1 billion (about $15 million) along with imprisonment for up to seven years.
As an Indian government official told the Economic Times, the main impulse behind the new legislation is national security, especially when foreign mapping services are involved:
"Our plea to black out sensitive installations do not yield results. This Bill is now sending a strong message that US companies cannot be running roughshod over Indian security interests."
Another key concern for the Indian government is making sure that all maps conform to its view of "correct" international boundaries where there are territorial disputes, for example in Kashmir. Those kinds of issues are nothing new; the problem here is the extremely broad reach of the proposed law. Here's the definition of the kind of mapping data that will require a license to collect and publish:
"Geospatial Information" 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
At first glance that might seem to apply only to big companies using sophisticated mapping techniques. But elsewhere the Bill says that, without a license:
no person shall acquire geospatial imagery or data including value addition of any part of India either through any space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles or terrestrial vehicles, or any other means whatsoever.
That would appear to rule out even non-commercial projects like OpenStreetMap, which builds maps from information gathered by thousands of volunteers as they move around locations. It gets worse: as a post on Medianama points out, the requirement for all geospatial mapping data to be vetted by a special government security agency means that it will be impossible to offer maps that use real-time information. That would therefore exclude all the most innovative mobile services that provide information that is constantly updated. In fact, the proposal is drafted so broadly it is hard to see how any useful service can be offered if it becomes law. Mishi Choudhary, legal director at Software Freedom Law Centre in India, is quoted by the Economic Times as saying:
"On the face of it, the Bill will kill any and every use of the maps. It is also unclear if you get a licence for maps, only you can use it or others can use it, too."
Throttling innovation in this way was surely not the Indian government's intention when it wrote this draft, and it seems almost certain that the text will undergo major refinements before it begins its journey through the legislative process. A site called savethemap.in has been set up to help people submit responses to the government consultation on the proposals. Whatever the final outcome, this episode illustrates well just how important and sensitive digital maps have become -- and just how hard it will be to regulate them sensibly.