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After Italy, Google is taking Indian law for granted

March 21, 2013 18:38 IST

Why is Google not being pulled up for mapping vital and sensitive installations which is against the law, asks Tarun Vijay.

Just because Google is good and useful, is it above the law?

We use Google to learn about anything under the sun but does it mean it must not be asked questions if it is violating our constitutional position and hurting Indian sensitivities. So can we apply the same criteria to well-known cars and declare that BMWs and Mercedes will not need any licence plates to run on Indian roads, because they are good and credible? And only Indian cars would be required to have them?

The Google Mapathon is inviting Indians to map the country and mark important points of interest. Participants are innocently marking all the vital areas and installations on the map, which goes into the Google database in the United States. All this data is restricted and cannot be shown on a map legally.

One can say that mapathon is an excellent concept of community mapping -- where people come together to put their collective location intelligence for the benefit of all. But does being good and useful allow one to be above the law?

For any such initiative, all Indian agencies are compulsorily required to take permission from the government. Many a time, they are told that it’s a policy decision which needs clearance from respective government agencies like the ministry of defence and the ministry of home affairs.

As Maneesh Prasad, editor, Directions India magazine, writes, “Talking to some of the grand old folks of the geospatial industry who have spent good years getting point of interests vetted by the respective agencies under ministry of defence for any VAs (Vulnerable Areas) and VPs (Vulnerable Points), it seems that points like important government buildings, oil storage, critical flyovers, airports, cantonments are all part of VA/VP.

“It is also worthwhile to share an attempt by a private mapping company in India to have their PoIs in the map data of a city cleared by the civil administration, which resulted in this data being referred to ministry of home affairs, where the proposal was turned down citing lack or absence of mapping policy which allows such data to be collected.”

Was such a clearance sought by Google and permission granted?

If no Indian agency has ever been allowed to map Indian locations, why make an exception in Google’s case?

Some years ago, then President A P J Abdul Kalam raised the issue of Google Earth and Google Maps showing sensitive installations. Had it been a small, nondescript company they would have been part of history by now. Similarly, after the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, the national mainstream media raised the issue of Google Earth showing too many sensitive details to the public. While Google Pro with a $400 (about Rs 22,000) subscription is not available in India, it is certainly available for those outside India. Hence those in India don’t have access, but those outside are free to use it (or misuse it).

Google is in the habit of misbehaving with Indian laws and sensitivities.

In 2008, the media had reported about its violations: Former President Abdul Kalam had expressed concerns that unrestricted pictures on Google Earth of sensitive locations in India could have worrisome implications. In February, the Indian government and Google Earth had agreed to show "fuzzy, low-resolution or distorted pictures'' of sensitive military and scientific establishments on the web.

Following the 26/11 terror attacks, a Mumbai-based advocate moved the Bombay high court seeking a "complete ban on Google Earth and similar sites like Wikimapia'' in the larger interest of national security.

Advocate Amit Karkhanis filed a public interest litigation stating that the websites gave minute details and provided viewers with photographs and "extremely accurate navigational coordinates'' as well. Terrorists are increasingly relying on sophisticated technology and internet services including Google Earth, maps and satellite phones for their horrible plans, he said.

According to the petition, the website was against the objectives of the National Security Act and the government had the power to prevent acts that were prejudicial to the nation's security and safety.

The ministry of science and technology and the Survey of India are the two authorities responsible for mapping the country. The country's National Mapping Policy of 2005 allows only the Survey of India to prepare maps in India in association with the National Remote Sensing Centre.

However, Google Earth provided free internet satellite pictures to an individual with "absolutely no control to prevent misuse or limit access'' to sensitive places such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, naval dockyards, nuclear and oil establishments and Rashtrapati Bhavan, the petition said.

Google Mapathon is a clear violation of India’s map regulations and defence provisions, the Surveyor General of India Swarna Subbarao told this writer. They are seriously contemplating action against it. Defence Minister A K Antony told this writer squarely, “It’s a serious matter, we shall take it up.”

But by then the entire country would have been data-stored in their US based servers!

The opinion of the Surveyor General of India can’t be simply brushed aside because anglicised babus think Google is too big to handle.

Like Italy, mayube?

Maneesh Prasad says violation of policy can be in terms of publishing map data or re-producing them either in print or on the internet without permission. Or using them without the permission of the agencies concerned.

What will happen if you are found guilty of violating the mapping policy? Nothing!

So far, there has not been a single case where an agency -- private or government -- has been pulled up for the violation of map usage by not conforming to the policy.

In every other country, showing an incorrect map or publishing without the permission of the prescribed national authorities is a punishable crime. Except in India.

Breaking the law has nothing to do with the freedom component of the media, their overwhelmingly usefulness to the masses and the responsibility of the State power to provide them space to function. If that was the case, shouldn't Britain have turned a blind eye to Rupert Murdoch's 'small' mistake in phone hacking and let an icon of the British media survive? 

After Italy, Google is taking Indian laws for granted.

Tarun Vijay is a member of the Rajya Sabha; member, Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party and honorary director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Tarun Vijay