Jail Term for Wrong Depiction of Indian Map: An Explainer on the Draft Geospatial Bill

A new draft bill that seeks to govern how any geospatial data about India is shared has the potential to affect anyone who wishes to share information and data such as maps and surveys.

New Delhi: Want to create a map of India or launch any service that depends on India’s geospatial information? Get in line and start preparing your map licence application. On Friday, the Ministry of Home Affairs made public a draft “Geospatial Information Regulation Bill” that seeks to govern how any entity makes use of the geographic data that makes up India.

Geographic data here refers to the natural or man-made physical features of India – basically any information described or communicated by surveys, charts, maps and geographic coordinate systems.  The new bill, for which comments and suggestions can be sent in the next 30 days, therefore concerns everybody from major corporations such as Google to smaller entities such as OpenStreetMaps (a non-profit, crowdsourced map of the world), Wikipedia and nature magazine National Geographic.

While a number of reports have pointed out some of the more eyeball-grabbing parts of the bill – one of which includes a potential Rs. 100 crore fine and 7-year jail sentence for the entity that wrongly depicts the map of India – the core thrust of this proposed legislation is regulating Internet companies that make use of India’s geospatial information by constructing a licensing regime. What follows below are the salient principles behind the proposed bill.

Principle 1- India’s geospatial data is now owned by the Indian government

Geo1As point three of the new regulations states above, it doesn’t matter how you acquire this geospatial data of India, it is illegal to do so without permission from a separate, newly-established entity called the Security Vetting Authority. In other words, India now has made a claim on the ownership of its geospatial data – this automatically means that anybody else who acquires it or distributes it is in the wrong.

One of the more puzzling aspects of the bill is that not only does it seek to restrict the use of India’s geospatial data within India – it also pertains to any entity that uses this data outside India. “No person shall in any manner make use of, disseminate, publish or distribute any geospatial information of India, outside India, without prior permission from the Security Vetting Authority,” says the bill. This means that even if Google Maps exited India, it would still require a license to show India in its international version. How would India enforce such a clause?

Principle 2- Apply for a license if you wish to make use of India’s geospatial data

GeoSpatialThe bill doesn’t go into a great deal on the process of applying for a licence or the quantum of application fees. However, if you wish to disseminate or distribute any chart or map of India, a licence needs to be acquired. This means Google needs a licence for its Google Maps, OpenStreetMaps for its crowdsourced map and even Wikipedia which uses the United Nations geo-scheme for its maps.

The bill doesn’t make clear what happens to third party services that make use of Google Maps such as Zomato. Or applications such as Waze which collect real-time, crowd-sourced data on traffic patterns within cities.

Principle 3 – Break the license conditions? Pay fines and face punishment

Geo 3The bill, as mentioned above, doesn’t break down what sort of conditions need to be fulfilled in order to receive an application. It does say that the “licensee shall be supplied with security-vetted geospatial information by the security vetting authority…”. Which essentially means that the Security Vetting Authority is likely to make sure the map doesn’t contain any national security details such as military sites and airforce bases.

However, now that a license regime is enforced, it can punish license holders for wrongly depicting the map of India (particularly regions of Jammu and Kashmir and sometimes even Arunachal Pradesh that foreign publications often show as lying outside India’s borders). Most of the penalties for breaking licence conditions or publishing data without a licence come with fines ranging from Rs. 10 lakh to Rs. 100 crore and jail punishments of one to seven years.

The political conundrum

In many ways the issue of how to regulate companies that collect geospatial data within India is similar to the government’s quest of regulating online messaging companies such as WhatsApp. The government, understandably, wants companies such as WhatsApp to cooperate when it comes to issues of law enforcement but finds it difficult to enforce this mostly because these companies are based out of the United States. In TRAI’s initial consultation paper, it proposed a similar licensing regime for over the top application as a method of dealing with security issues.

It appears the same tactic is being applied for online map and data companies such as Google. After all, this isn’t the first time the Indian government and Google have locked horns over the company’s Maps and Earth services. In 2013, the Central Bureau of Investigation launched an enquiry into Google’s Mapathon competition, alleging that the company had violated laws by mapping security-sensitive areas and military sites.

The Survey of India organization, which in 2014 led the charge against Google, had maintained that it had the “sole responsibility for producing, maintaining and disseminating the topographic map database” of India. While the proposed geospatial bill has wisely veered away from that logic, it is unclear whether a licensing regime is the best option at securing national security concerns. For instance, a clear distinction could have been drawn between companies that make money off India’s geospatial data like Google and entities such as OpenStreetMaps which do not.

And while data sovereignty is a useful perspective when dealing with Silicon Valley-based companies, there’s a thin line between protecting India’s national security interests and fining a company Rs. 100 crore and sending its executives to jail over what is really a matter of jingoistic pride.

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