What’s the point of the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill?

The government is taking comments on the bill till June 4. Here’s everything you need to know before having your say

ByKaushik Chatterji
What’s the point of the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill?
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Back when he was an intern for an urban development consultancy in Mumbai, Akshay Kore worked with physical maps of the city that were so huge, they would take up the entire floor space in a room. Visualising data meant having the sprawled on the floor, placing tracing paper over it and using colours to isolate areas like, for instance, open spaces or water bodies in the city. The process took several hours and had to be repeated every time different types of data had to be mapped.

So, while pursuing his post-graduation in interaction design from the Industrial Design Centre (IDC) at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB), Kore came up with a thesis project that reduced the time taken to visualise the land-use pattern of Mumbai on a map from a few hours to a few seconds. The interactive land-use map of the city was created using data that was already available publicly on the website of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM).

The intelligent presentation – every layer corresponds to a specific attribute, such as residential or commercial – caught the same agency’s eye and soon enough, MCGM expressed an interest in Kore’s project, as did some employees of World Bank and several students of urban planning. However, what was initially a source of pride – and a potential treasure trove for city planners – has now turned into a reason to worry after the Ministry of Home Affairs released a draft of the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill.

“Personally, I got scared when I first got to know of this Bill,” said Kore. “It has the potential to scare away a lot of people working on visualisation of geospatial data, even if some of the provisions of the draft are not ultimately implemented.” As of now, what exists is a draft that is as vague as it is draconian. Already, it has upset our neighbours. Pakistan has expressed concern with United Nations that provisions of the draft Bill are in violation of the Security Council’s resolutions regarding Jammu and Kashmir.

Meant to “regulate the acquisition, dissemination, publication and distribution of geospatial information of India which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity of India”, the Bill aims to apply to all Indian citizens, even those outside the country, as well as “persons on ships and aircrafts, registered in India, wherever they may be”. What this basically means is that every bit of geospatial information – graphical or digital data including but not limited to “surveys, charts, maps, terrestrial photos referenced to a coordinate system and having attributes” – has to be cleared for approval. This potentially extends to something as simple as a Facebook check-in or geo-tagging a post on Twitter, or even a map that you doodle on a piece of paper for your own reference.

This clearance will have to be obtained from a Security Vetting Authority, consisting of a Joint Secretary to the central government, a technical expert and a national security expert. According to the existing draft of the bill, it will be the responsibility of the person (read: individual, educational institution, business, etc.) who wants to use the geo-spatial information to approach the Security Vetting Authority for a license by making “an application alongwith (sic) requisite fees”.

It’s not just new maps and charts. The Bill is applicable to those who are already in possession of geo-spatial information. They will have to apply for a license (along with “requisite fees”) within a year of this Bill becoming an Act. Meanwhile, the Security Vetting Authority can take as long as three months to grant a license or reject the application.

Merely applying for a license and paying the fees does not ensure that one will be granted that license. The Security Vetting Authority can reject the application if it feels that the information might be used in a way that threatens “national security, sovereignty, safety and integrity”. It is unclear whether the “requisite fees” deposited along with the application will be refunded to the applicant if they’re rejected.

Rejection can only take place after “the applicant has been given a reasonable opportunity of presenting his case”. Appeals can be made to an Appellate Authority consisting of a retired Supreme Court or High Court judge, a technical expert and a national security expert, the High Court or the Supreme Court. The Security Vetting Authority can revoke existing licenses.

Penalties for using unlicensed geo-spatial information – whether it is because the application for a license was rejected or because a license was never sought – are stiff, including fines that range from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 100 crore, and even seven-year jail terms.

Excessive penalties aside, it is unclear who the Bill is targeting. Ostensibly, it is the government’s way of reining in errant multinationals – Google is a habitual offender, with even Twitter casting aspersions on locations that are within India’s borders. In any case, biggies such as Google Maps change international borders depending on where you view them. Exactly how the government of India plans to make Google, Twitter or any other multinational pay for such  transgressions is a mystery that the draft does not resolve.

What is clear, though, is that the Bill will throw a spanner in the works of research scholars, amateur map enthusiasts and — crucially — Good Samaritans. In a post titled Save the map that saves lives, Bangalore-based programmer Sajjad Anwar talks about how cartographers collaborate with on-ground agencies to provide assistance to rescue workers during emergencies.

Anwar gave the specific example of last year’s Nepal earthquake, during which a community of mappers named Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) worked with the Kathmandu Living Labs to help agencies like the American Red Cross plan and prioritise rescue and relief operations. The draft Bill has the potential to shut down HOT in India and “silence volunteer mappers, cartographers, and data analysts who support humanitarian response,” according to Anwar. “Basically stopping them from saving lives,” he said bluntly.

There’s also the issue of “requisite fees” – what those fees will actually be has not been specified in the draft bill. It is quite likely that there will be different fees for different categories of applicants, depending on whether or not the usage is commercial. “Certainly, this will be a resource overhead,” said Anwar. In effect, this could mean the end of the road for hobbyists – and there are many – who indulge in map-making to spread awareness, and not for commercial gain. Think the bus route maps of OpenBangalore.

The bill promises to be a headache for academia, too. While educational institutions are likely to hike their fees in order to absorb the financial shock, masters students and research scholars will be left in the lurch. “Most of higher education involves some form of mapping or data visualisation,” said Kore. “Besides, most academic projects are open data. IITB, for example, promotes that idea.”

While students might not be trying to profit off their thesis projects, profit is the raison d’etre of businesses. And in the age of ‘Start Up India, Stand up India’, of particular concern is the bill’s impact on businesses that use geo-spatial information, like restaurant discovery startups (think Zomato), travel websites (like Goibibo) and transportation companies (like Ola). Expect them to pass on the additional financial burden to the consumer. Newslaundry tried to get a comment from Zomato, but they did not respond.

Admittedly, there is the need for some form of regulation for the ocean of geospatial information – the National Map Policy is outdated, as is the idea of trying to force multinationals to respect the country’s territorial integrity by using sections of the Information Technology Act. However, this draft Bill seems to be taking things too far, and in a direction that’s unlikely to make much of a constructive impact.

Plus, there is the very legitimate concern that the Bill might be used to further crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that a Security Vetting Authority formulated by the incumbents may not take kindly to a map of India depicting the state-wise status of beef that The Hindu appends to every story about the meaty issue.

The Ministry of Home Affairs is accepting comments on the draft Bill until June 4, 2016. Meanwhile, concerned citizens, including Anwar and Datameet (a community of data science enthusiasts), have launched a campaign called Save The Map, complete with FAQs, links to news stories and a discussion board. After all, as Datameet director Nisha Thompson put it, “They (the government) can’t just create a policy like this just because Google annoys them.”

The author can be contacted on Twitter @causticji

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