Cold response from MNCs like Google to India’s security concerns is seen as a prime reason for the proposed legislation to regulate mapping of the country, a move that critics call “return of the Licence Raj” and “digital nationalism”.
A draft of Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, released last week seeking public comments, says anyone mapping India by a satellite or aerial platform will need a licence from a government “security vetting authority”. “India as a responsible power must have established guidelines,” Kiren Rijiju, MoS for Home, told ET, reacting to the criticism to the move.
“We won’t create hurdles for business and technological development, but national security considerations must not be compromised either,” said Rijiju. Non-compliance could land you in jail for seven years. On the top of that would be a fine of up to Rs 100 crore. BJP MP Tarun Vijay, who has long been campaigning for such a law, said “patriotic Indians” should use the country’s own ‘Bhuvan’ software application for maps.
“Why do we need Google? We should stop becoming Google’s instruments,” he told ET. “The patriotic government of Narendra Modi has taken a right step in a big relief to the security establishment. UPA did not take any action despite my pleas to the then Defence Minister AK Antony. I congratulate the Modi government for showing spine in face of arrogance of these IT giants,” he said, adding: Google has been “behaving as if it were above Indian law”.
A top government official involved in the move said maps of India’s sensitive installations were available on Google Maps, increasing the security risk of those sites. Demand to mask those were never complied to. “Pathankot air base, which was recently attacked, can be seen on Google Maps. Terrorists plot strikes on sensitive targets studying Google Maps,” he told ET.
“Our plea to black out sensitive installations do not yield results. This Bill is now sending a strong message that US companies cannot be running roughshod over Indian security interests.” Companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple, which have millions of Indians using their maps, would be hit directly by the legislation if it is pushed through. Firms that depend on these maps to provide their services, such as Uber, Zomato and Ola, too would be affected. Google, Apple and Microsoft didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Mishi Choudhary, legal director at Software Freedom Law Centre, said almost all online businesses today depend on geo-location and provide maps for the use of their services, and that all of them will be forced to seek a licence under the proposed law. “This kind of digital nationalism is a way to create a government-controlled monopoly on all geographical information about the country, conveniently transforming Digital India to Licence India, digitally this time,” said Choudhary, who was part of the successful legal fight to scrap Section 66A of the IT Act to ensure freedom of expression on the Internet. An executive at one of the big tech companies said the draft Bill raised far too many questions.
“On the face of it, the Bill will kill any and every use of the maps. It is also unclear if you get a licence for maps, only you can use it or others can use it, too,” he said. “Also, whether every time you update a map, does one have to get a security clearance? Maps have to be live and dynamic, so getting it approved from government each time may not be feasible.”
Those working on mapping and geospatial technology said services such as Google Maps are popular because they are faster and easier to use compared to government-prescribed process. “According to Indian law…if I have to buy certain data, I will have to go to the concerned department, like ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Agency, or the Survey of India. In the case of NRSC (for satellite data), they will purchase the data for me, and then I will have to pay. That’s a long process and hence people went to services like Google Maps, which are easier,” said Devdatta Tengshe, a freelance geospatial information systems consultant.
The agency removes sensitive zones from the data and takes about two-three months or even more to respond, which is an unrealistic timeline for people working with digital data, he said. There is also apprehension that the Bill will undermine rescue and humanitarian efforts, such as during disasters like the Nepal earthquake.
“It was user-generated geospatial data that was used by the humanitarian response teams. This situation of lack of openly usable geospatial data holds true for large parts of India, and especially Himalayan India,” said Sumandro Chattapadhyay, research director at Centre for Internet and Society. Also of concern is the lack of court’s jurisdiction in matters related to the proposed legislation, said SFLC’s Choudhary.
A senior government official, however, said companies should not have a problem to come under regulations on security considerations and that the Bill was up for public comments where the companies can lodge their apprehensions. “We are not banning anyone from mapping India — only that the mapping has to be in line with Indian security considerations regarding sensitive installations and correct boundaries being depicted like not showing PoK and Arunachal Pradesh as out of India,” this official said.
A group of techies have, meanwhile, got together to create a website called savethemap.in, which aims to educate people and make them send out responses to the draft Bill. It will likely come up with a template response, along the lines as the savetheinternet. in campaign that was instrumental in taking the net neutrality debate to the people.