The Ministry of Home Affairs in the Central government has proposed a bill that may stifle innovation of budding startups and pose a threat to the Digital India initiative. It has put up online the draft of the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill which seeks to regulate the dissemination of all geospatial data belonging to the Indian Territory. The proposed bill makes it mandatory for any individual or agency, who wishes to make any kind of geospatial data or imagery public, to take permission from a Vetting Authority and get the maps verified before going forward. Failing to do this might land the individuals in jail for seven years and forced to serve a fine of as high as Rs.100 crore!
Reasons given by Govt
As we know, India shares territorial disputes with its neighbouring countries. Patches of land in Kashmir and in Arunachal Pradesh are under contention. In this wake, there have been incidents in the past where mapping services have wrongly shown the Indian borders. For instance in 2013, Google Maps showed Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir as part of China when a user accessed the site from China. Earlier this year, Twitter drew flak for telling that Jammu was in Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir was a part of China. Apart from these goof-ups, use of sensitive military information by terrorists is another major concern which has led the government to monitor the maps.
Concerns regarding the Bill
On the first look, the Bill seems to bring back the ghost of license Raj, this time on digital information. Any service provider dealing with geospatial data will effectively need to get the license from an authority, which will lead to delays and possibly bribery. Navigational services using GPS data, pollution monitoring agencies mapping the extent of air pollutants and levels of groundwater, health agencies tracking the outbreak of a disease – all of them require up-to-date and real-time maps data. This may become difficult once the proposed Bill comes into effect. While the bigger players might use lobbying and money to obtain permissions easily, startups may be at the receiving end of such a tight scrutiny on their data, and may eventually lose the competition to the bigger companies.
Some details related to the kind of data that will require permissions are startling if interpreted in a certain way. For example, the geospatial information definition in the Bill includes “terrestrial photos referenced to a co-ordinate system”, which essentially means geo-tagged photos that we take on our smartphones. Further, we all save navigational tracks and maps on our phones for offline use. The Bill does not make it clear whether such widely used and personal information will also come under the purview of the Vetting Authority.
Although not officially stated, there might be some benefits that could come out of such a harsh policy. It might promote the use of the indigenous IRNSS satellite system which has just finished implementation. Since service providers will require to verify their maps, which have been mostly generated using GPS and GLONASS systems of the US and Russia, against the official versions of the govt, they may find it useful to start using IRNSS to get their maps data. This could be tied with the Make in India initiative as well. Nevertheless, this is not the official goal of the Bill as per its draft.
Deluded by comments and requests from maps companies worldwide, the Ministry of Home Affairs may tone down the provisions of the Bill and make certain clauses clearer. The Hindu has reported that the Bill might be moved closer to the form of the National Geospatial Policy (NGP) 2016 of the Dept of Science and Technology. The NGP calls for “easy, timely, user-friendly and web/mobile platforms-based “access to geospatial data “without any process of registration/authorization.” It may cap the fine to “a crore or two” and levy it on companies that “wrongly depict borders”. This is a welcome change as it seeks to cater to the real issue of wrong depiction of borders without intruding too much on users’ privacy. It is to be seen whether these changes are taken up in the final draft of the Bill or not.
The Logical Indian hopes that the government makes necessary amendments to the draft such that it meets its desired stated objectives without doing unintended harm to the startup ecosystem and numerous services that rely on geospatial data.
– Abhishek Mittal