India to ban unofficial maps and satellite photos

  • Published
Satellite photo of India, taken in 2007.Image source, Science Photo Library
Image caption,
The bill would require a licence for all existing photographs and maps.

India is introducing legislation to ban maps or satellite images of the country unless they are approved by government.

The new bill, which would affect digital maps from Google, Apple, and Uber, is facing stiff opposition from campaign groups.

It also bans "wrong" information, including disputed international borders.

The government said the rules would not create barriers to business if the bill became law.

The bill bans all types of geospatial information, maps, raw data or photographs, acquired by any means, including satellite photography.

Offenders could be fined up to 1bn rupees (£10.4m).

It also requires anyone who has already gathered such information to apply for a licence to keep it.

It was designed to regulate both the creation and distribution of geospatial information in India "which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity" of the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs said.

Technical difficulties

Critics say the definition of geospatial data is so wide it could include printed maps, world atlases, or depictions of the country in international magazines imported to India.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Value-added services such as Uber are also likely to require a licence.

The proposed law is likely to cause problems for Apple and Google's map products, as well as services offering "value added" geolocation services, such as taxi-hailing app Uber.

It is also unclear if companies such as Google would have to go through a separate vetting process every time they updated their satellite imagery - a process that takes up to three months.

There is an exemption for government agencies and departments.

Google already offers slightly altered versions of its maps inside India, eliminating the Line of Control that divides Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and locating the whole disputed region within India's borders.

Image source, Google
Image caption,
In India (left), Google Maps eliminates the Line of Control seen on the international version (right).

Both Google and Uber declined to comment.

The laws extend beyond large international companies.

Anyone creating, distributing, or owning unsanctioned maps must apply to a government agency for a licence, and submit the material for inspection.

The geospatial data will then be considered by a security vetting committee, which will decide if the applicant is granted a licence.

Once the material is cleared, it must be watermarked with the insignia of the vetting authority.

"It's only a draft proposal before the country," the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, said in a tweet. "I would appeal not to pass hasty judgment, but put up your suggestions."

Speaking to the Economic Times, he said: "It is a general concern being raised that India as a responsible country must have provisions to secure its boundary and territory.

"That is why the bill is necessary.

"It is not a question of sending a message to any firm or company - but it is a question of addressing our own security concern."

Media caption,

WATCH: 'Tough penalties for unapproved maps'

Analysis: Shilpa Kannan, BBC News, Delhi

In a country where the number of people owning a mobile phone is rocketing, providing online maps is a big and growing business.

If this bill goes through, no-one, from Google to the smallest business, will be able to run their map services in India without a licence.

The government will control how anyone uses online maps.

When I want to book a cab using a taxi app service, I'm sharing my location with the service to find a cab.

The driver uses a map to navigate.

When I take a picture and upload it with metadata, I'm creating mapping information that would require a licence.

A growing protest online, with the hashtag "#savethemap", claims the bill won't just hurt individuals, but also small businesses.

Image source, Twitter
Image caption,
The #savethemap campaign is concerned with the wide definition in the draft bill

Campaigner Sumandro Chattapadhyay says companies such as Uber and Google will survive by getting all their maps vetted by the government.

"But smaller companies have no means to know what kind of geospatial information they can store and what they cannot," she says.

"Moreover, if a start-up requires three months to get approvals for your data before you can use it, it'll be as good as dead."

The bill also bans the publication of such material outside the country, and is designed to apply to citizens of India living and working in other countries, explicitly stating offenders outside India will be subject to the same penalties.

"This act needs to be dropped," said managing editor Arup Dasgupta, in a post on Geospatial World magazine's website.

"This act does not, in fact cannot, even begin to comprehend the paradigm shift in geospatial technologies which makes it a non-starter.

"India does need a geospatial information act, but it has to be an enabling and encouraging act that makes for faster and better implementation of programmes, not a regressive and punitive act as the proposed one," he said.

The bill is still in the draft stage, and government is inviting submissions on it until 4 June.