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Government restricts foreign mapping services to one metre accuracy

The government has restricted foreign mapping services like Google Maps to an accuracy of one metre in guidelines published by the Department of Science & Technology on Monday. “Foreign companies and foreign owned or controlled Indian companies can license from Indian Entities digital Maps/Geospatial Data of spatial accuracy/value finer than the threshold value only for the purpose of serving their customers in India,” the guidelines say.

“Access to such Maps/Geospatial Data shall only be made available through APIs that do not allow Maps/Geospatial Data to pass through Licensee Company or its servers. Re-use or resale of such map data by licensees shall be prohibited.”

This means that more accurate mapping data can only be obtained by foreign companies if they partner with an Indian firm.

These are the guidelines’ threshold for accuracy, beyond which only Indian companies would be able to record information without needing permission or approvals.

1. On-site spatial accuracy shall be one meter for horizontal or Planimetry and three meters for vertical or Elevation.
2. Gravity anomaly shall be 1 milli-gal.
3. Vertical accuracy of Bathymetric data in Territorial Waters shall be 10 meters for up to 500 meters from the shore-line and 100 meters beyond that.

A Google spokesperson said that the company was studying the guidelines, and didn’t offer a statement. MapMyIndia, which recently signed an MOU with ISRO for mapping services, has been pushing a protectionist line on mapping in the lead-up to Monday’s announcement. Rohan Varma, the Indian company’s managing director said in a promoted tweet that there would soon be an “an aatmanirbhar bharat not dependent on foreign maps & privacy-invading ad giants,” the latter referring to Google.

Liberalizing mapping rules, with a touch of protectionism

The guidelines otherwise represent a liberalization of mapping rules — at least for Indian companies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted about it, saying “India’s farmers will also be benefited by leveraging the potential of geo-spatial & remote sensing data.”

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The guidelines clean up some of the uncertainty around the legality of mapping in India. They are a departure from the ill-fated 2016 Draft Geospatial Information Bill, which was shelved amid strong opposition. Almost five years later, among the sole vestiges of that proposed law — which included a licensing regime for pretty much all map data — is a “negative list”.

Negative list: “The negative list of attributes will include attributes that shall not be marked on any Map i.e. no person or legal entity shall identify or associate any location on a Map with a prohibited attribute,” the guidelines say. That essentially means that, for example, if ‘army base’ is a prohibited attribute, that means the location that a base sits on can be shown, but not marked as a base; the wording also gives the government the policy space to black out or censor such areas on maps.

“With the advent of publicly available geospatial services, a lot of Geospatial Data that used to be in restricted zone are freely and commonly available now and some of the policies/guidelines that used to regulate such information have been rendered obsolete and redundant. What is readily available globally does not need to be regulated,” the guideline document says.

Preferential access to Indian companies: The guidelines provide for easy access to systems that are useful for compiling mapping data to Indian companies. For instance, the guidelines say (emphasis added by us):

(a) Ground truthing/verification, access to Indian ground stations and augmentation services for real time positioning (Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS), etc) and their data shall be made available without any restrictions and with the ease of access to Indian Entities only.

(b) Terrestrial Mobile Mapping survey, Street View survey and surveying in Indian territorial waters shall be permitted only for Indian Entities irrespective of accuracy.

Localization of map data: Map data that is more accurate than one metre can only be processed and stored in India. “Maps/Geospatial Data of spatial accuracy/value finer than the threshold value can only be created and/or owned by Indian Entities and must be stored and processed in India,” the guidelines say. Foreign companies accessing such data can only make use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), can only serve customers in India, and are prohibited from keeping map data stored on their servers. They can’t reuse or resell maps licensed from Indian companies.

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Research access: Maps produced with public funds should be available widely, the guidelines say. The Survey of India will also abolish map license systems and make map data available in formats that can be used by mapping companies readily, the guidelines added.

Survey of India’s borders are “standard”: “For political Maps of India of any scale including national, state and other boundaries, SoI published maps or SoI digital boundary data are the standard to be used, which shall be made easily downloadable for free and their digital display and printing shall be permissible. Others may publish such maps that adhere to these standards,” the guidelines say. This essentially gives the government room to enforce prohibitions on versions of the map with disputed borders.

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