The article was first published in the Mint newspaper on May 25, 2016.
If the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, becomes a law, many things you have come to take for granted will become out of bounds for you.
You won’t be able to geotag photos and post them on social media. You won’t be able to check in on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. You won’t be able to record your running, cycling, driving or walking activities, tagged with location, on smartphone apps. You won’t be able to share your location with friends and family over WhatsApp. You won’t be able to send your location through a food delivery app when you are hungry and not willing to cook. You won’t be able to use safety apps that share your location when an SOS alert is sent. You won’t be able to book an Ola or a Uber cab by making your location available to the driver. You won’t be able to geotag your property for maintenance of land records.
A civil society group won’t be able to survey a community or region by collecting their coordinates. An organization won’t be able to prepare charts that represent an analysis on the basis of geography. Universities will not be able to show map-based research. A fisherman will not be able to share weather and tidal updates with others. Citizens will not be able to share their location on social media during rescue operations.
The draft of the bill proposes “to regulate the acquisition, dissemination, publication and distribution of geospatial information of India which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity of India”.
So no, it’s not just the big crowd-mapping-technology-using companies or Apple Maps and Google Maps that will be affected, but everybody who uses a smartphone will be subjected to obtaining a licence for sharing any geo-tagged information before acquiring, disseminating and publishing it. This means several hundred millions of smart-devices users would need a licence, and we can all only wonder how the government is geared to do that.
The art of map making has for centuries been known as cartography. A map has always been a subject dealt with by experts and government officials having specialized knowledge or interest. But in the last 10 years, because of the digital revolution, especially camera phones and photo-sharing social networking platforms, the map has become a consumer product. In fact, we use a map for various personal and professional purposes almost as much as we use a packaged consumer product—and we don’t really need a licence to use a shampoo or eat bread, do we?
If you look at the maps and value additions generated by consumers in this digital era, you’ll understand how powerful a tool it is for the benefit of the larger community and the government as well. Not only are people from the ground sending out information, but people across the globe (including governments) are also receiving the data through crowd-sourcing and crowd-mapping technologies.
There should be no control over that.
On the one hand, the government has introduced the ambitious Digital India programme under which it wants to connect everybody and, on the other hand, there is this bill waiting to be tabled that just destroys every pillar of the Digital India charter. When the government says that it wants all citizens, ministers and members of Parliament to be connected and active on social media, does it not realize—by looking at the character of social media—that geo-tagging of locations is one of the most basic ingredients of social media, which consciously or unconsciously also introduces transparency in governance.
With access to the Internet and encouragement to connect with the masses, political leaders are constantly updating their location on social media in an effort to allow ordinary people to reach out to them. Teachers and students are using Geographic Information System based technology tools to inform their respective state education departments about the functionality of their school, availability of water in their toilets and whether or not mid-day meals are being served. The efficiency of fair price shops (ration shops) can also be tracked using geospatial information. Rescue teams zero in on disaster victims who put out an SOS on Twitter or Facebook, along with their location. All this, and more, is possible through Radio Frequency ID tagging or geo-tagging today.
And the entire logic surrounding protection of the way our national boundaries are depicted seems bizarre because there are already several laws, regulations and Acts under which the depiction of the map of India falls. And so, the use of maps for daily use should not be hampered.
If you think this bill is not going to affect the common man eventually, you’re wrong. According to the draft, those covered under it include “individuals, companies, firms, trusts, associations of persons, artificial juridical persons, and agencies or offices or branches owned by any of these”. It’s a massively large umbrella of applications.
Frankly speaking, this bill should have never been drafted in the first place.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar