The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill has come under sharp criticism from cyber law experts who believe its draft proposals, released for debate earlier this month, “lack clarity of purpose” and have “no consistency in terms of what is digital information”. Experts fear the bill, if it is enacted into a law, will bring under its ambit any individual in possession of a smartphone that is GPS enabled and will hold him/her guilty of acquiring geospatial imagery or data.
The draft of this bill is not accompanied by a statement of purpose, which is generally the norm, and it is silent on whether it intends to register, enrol and keep track of geospatial information collectors and licensers or it is the information itself which will be verified.
Globally, bills which involve geospatial information are concerned with the licensing of information which is given out. But in the case of India, the draft bill is actually talking of acquiring information through satellites and balloons and remote sensing. But it is not clear whether it applies only to Indian citizens living in India or also to those living abroad or persons on vessels. “The bill is unclear about what is the status of organisations like Google and Microsoft or any other person in possession of satellite imagery of India. The bill does not say whether they fall in its ambit or not. It is a very badly drafted bill. It is not clear about the purpose it serves,” Anupam Saraph, former governance and IT advisor to former Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, told The Sunday Guardian.
The draft bill has proposed the institution of a security vetting authority, and it stipulates that “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” unless the person has been granted permission for the same by the agency.
The bill has generated a common apprehension that sharing of real time location via WhatsApp with friends, or on a delivery app, as is routinely done by millions of Android or GPS enabled smartphone users, will be prohibited. It is impractical to think that all smartphone users will queue up to get the required permit, and there is also the fear that such a practice will give rise to a “licensing raj”.
Saraph told this newspaper that while it may be true that photographs taken from aircraft amounts to capturing geospatial information, it is absurd to define geospatial information in such a broad way and try to impose penalties for capturing it. “If you wear Google glasses and walk around, you are capturing geospatial information. You can’t say that just because you have mapped a terrain, you are guilty of any offence,” opined Saraph.
A Bangalore based cyber law expert said that the bill will lead to a lot of practical difficulties for the common man because even if they refer to any Google maps directly, they will be guilty of acquiring geospatial information without a license. This is because the licence will only be applicable to Google and any other party will have to get a separate licence over and above what Google Map has. “There is no definition about whether a third party acquisition on your mobile or on your computer amounts to geospatial acquisition. Taxi aggregators like Uber and Ola are also acquiring geospatial information as a third party. They are not directly acquiring through the satellite or balloons or any remote sensing device. So, it is unclear about the usage of such information or the liability of the users if this information happens to be acquired in any way,” the source said.
Experts dismissed the argument that the bill is envisaged in order to safeguard privacy and national security. “If it was about issues concerning national security, then I think there are key issues concerning national security which have already been opened up to the whole world through the Aadhar database. That data can actually cause identity theft, impersonation and infiltration into security portals, and it is far more serious than geographical information which, anyway, can be acquired by anybody with the resources. And knowing a location or topography of a piece of land has different implications compared to actually being able to infiltrate into the security of a nation. I think there are completely misplaced priorities, and there is no consistency in the policy of the government as far as digital information is concerned,” Saraph explained.
The Bangalore based source further contended that “Government of India has no idea of what its digital assets are and how it identifies them. Without recognising what the country’s digital assets are and how they are created, how are they certified, it is too premature to even think of a Geospatial Information Bill”.
Meanwhile, another clause of the bill, which proposes to impose imprisonment of seven years and a fine up to Rs 100 crore for wrongful depiction of any part of Jammu and Kashmir as Pakistan’s territory, has attracted opposition from the neighbouring country. Pakistan has raised its concerns with the United Nations, writing to its Secretary General that “India’s official map, which is mentioned in the bill, shows J&K to be a part of India, which is ‘factually incorrect’ and legally untenable”. India, on its part, has refused to take cognisance of Pakistan’s objections to the bill, with Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup saying “the proposed bill is an entirely internal legislative matter of India, since the whole of the state of J&K is an integral part of India. Pakistan or any other party has no locus standi in the matter”.
Experts believe that Pakistan’s objections, in the first place, are a customary gesture and it only caters to its domestic audience which wants the Kashmir issue to be kept alive. “Certainly, there is a diehard lobby in Pakistan which somehow wants to keep Kashmir a central issue. And in any case they are projecting a third party, trying to make it a multilateral issue... to which we have strictly said that it is a bilateral issue. They are pursuing their policy and we have done what we need to do,” noted diplomat Pavan Verma told this correspondent.
“Every country is entitled to protect and project its borders as it feels they are, and for any other country to object and take the matter to the United Nations is, I believe, unproductive. We do not recognise the PoK as a disputed area. We consider the whole of Kashmir as shown in our boundaries as ours,” he added.