The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill: A short commentary

This article has been written by Torsha Sarkar. Torsha is a third-year law student in National Law University Odisha.

The Ministry of Home Affairs released a bill on 4th May, 2016, named ‘The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill’, which aimed to ‘regulate the acquisition, dissemination, publication and distribution of geospatial information of India which is likely to to affect the security, sovereignity and integrity of India’[1]. As per the act, the term ‘geospatial information’ would mean all geospatial imagery which has been obtained through aerial means, like satellites or airplanes[2].

A bare perusal of the Bill shows that the Bill proposes the creation of a ‘Security Vetting Authority (SVA)’, who would give general permission for any acquisition of geospatial imagery. Further, the Bill also suggests that all those who have already acquired the geospatial information as defined, should, within one year of the commencement of the act, make an application to the Security Vetting Authority (SVA) for permission to retain the same. Any contravention of the same would result in a large amount of fine, ranging from ten lakh rupees to one crore rupees.

Who does this Bill impact?

 

The short answer is, everybody who uses maps in apps. From regular Whatsapp usage, whereby we send our location to our friends, to bigger apps like Google, Ola, Zomato, Uber, and so on. Any app who uses maps as a major part of their services and functions would be severely impacted if this bill is enacted and made into a law. The ‘geospatial imagery’ they had obtained would be subjected to the SVA for approval, and there is already a worry in the minds of scholars regarding the fact that this approval is subject to the discretion of  SVA, which is a bureacratic body, and that the whole process might get caught up in red-tapism[3].

Further, a potential enactment of this bill would also hamper scientific and academic research. The sweeping ambit of the definition of ‘geospatial information’ includes maps, aerial images and so on. These are the primary tools of research for earth scientists, and if this bill is enacted, these tools would be taken away from them[4].

Criticisms of the bill

The release of this bill has drawn flak and criticism from the legal and academic sphere alike. The Centre for Internet and Society had released comments on the same where they had proposed that the bill should be scraped off completely[5]. According to them, there are already laws existing which regulate usage of geospatial information that may undermine the security of India. Laws like the Official Secrest Act, 1923, as well as policies like The National Mapping Policy, 2005, which restricts wrongful depictions of India’s international borders. Say the government wants to substantiate the policy with a law, even in such cases the law enacted should be much more different, and would have a much more limited apply[6].

What could be the possible changes suggested to the Bill?

There are several areas of the Bill which require to be changed. One of the foremost is lessening the ambit of the definition ‘geospatial information’. As per the definition mentioned above, the sweep of this definition would also include personal messages (like Whatsapp), as well any tweet, or any Facebook post where the user ‘checks in’ in places. All such exchanges would require the prior approval of SVA, and it is the opinion of the author that an argument of this being violative of freedom of expression can be successfully made.

Further, section 15 of the Draft Bill imposes penalties for wrongful depictions of the boundaries of India[7]. Again, the sweep of ‘wrongful depictions’ is too broad. Not only this penalises wrongful depictions with reference to external political struggle, but it also penalises the depictions of India in history books, or newspaper reports which refer to such struggle and show the map as proposed by the enemy forces. This potential situation would again be violative of freedom of speech and expression.

While one can argue that the legislative intention behind the Bill is to stop internationally hostile forces from depicting Indian borders wrongful for their own gain, still the Bill is draconian is ambit, and lacks reasonable foresight. It is argued by the author that if the legislative intention is such, the Bill should only be passed with heavier amendments which would narrow the scope of the Bill.

[1]     Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Note to all Stakeholders and Citizens'<http://mha.nic.in/sites/upload_files/mha/files/GeospatialBill_05052016_eve.pdf&gt; last accessed 26 September 2016

[2]     The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill (2016) s. 2(1)(e)

[3]     K.N. Prudhvi Raju and Sarfaraz Alam, ‘The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill 2016’ (2016) 51 Economic and Political Weekly (Issue 31) 22, 23

[4]     id

[5]     Pranesh Prakash, ‘CIS’s Comments on the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016′<http://cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/comments-draft-geospatial-information-regulation-bill-2016>  last accessed 26 September 2016

[6]     id

[7]     See n 2, s. 15


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