A Crucial Time for the Geospatial Industry

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The next 12 months is shaping up to be an important period for the geospatial industry. Over that time there is likely to be significant movement on a number of key legal and policy issues that will impact the industry’s growth over the next decade. These issues include:

LightSquared/GPS dispute: The technical and political issues have received a great deal of attention over the past six months, so I won’t go into more detail here. However, there are two legal/policy points that should not be overlooked. First, any interference that LightSquared’s system has on the development and use of GPS for commercial purposes will be a step back for the entire geospatial community. A broad range of commercial services and applications could be impaired, not just the scientific and public safety communities often cited by members of Congress. Moreover, whichever side the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules against is likely to seek legal recourse through the courts. In fact, according to a recent report, LightSquared has already stated that it will insist on its “legal rights” if it is unable to get a decision from the FCC that allows it go forward. Court cases result in uncertainty, which will worry many businesses wishing to exploit GPS technology for commercial purposes.

U.S. Supreme Court ruling on GPS tracking: In November, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case U.S. v. Jones. One of the specific issues is whether law enforcement’s use of a GPS device to track a suspect on public streets without first obtaining a warrant is a violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights. In the past, the Supreme Court ruled that such use of a tracking device for a short period of time without a warrant was permissible. However, the court left the door open to revisit the issue if technology made it possible to track individuals remotely for longer periods. In Jones, the tracking occurred for over four weeks, which the lower court held was a violation of the suspect’s privacy. If the court rules on this issue — it conceivably could rule on a narrower issue without addressing tracking — the impact could be much broader than the facts of this case or even the use of GPS tracking devices by law enforcement. Policymakers and other judges may see the decision as a broader statement by the court as to a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy from a location standpoint and try to apply it to other geospatial technologies.

Budget considerations: As governments around the world are struggling with budget concerns, they increasingly are looking to delay or undo plans to fund geospatial technology programs such as remote sensing and satellite navigation systems. For example, Space News has recently reported on Congress’ scrutiny of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s EnhancedView contract with DigitalGlobe and GeoEye as well as the European Commission’s decision to remove the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program from future budgets. (Plans for future satellite navigation systems are receiving similar scrutiny.) Given that the global economy is expected to be weak for a while, the geospatial community may be feeling the effects of the decisions for a decade or longer. The impact of such delays likely will go well beyond the satellite companies and reach the broad range of businesses, government agencies and consumers who have come to rely on increasingly higher-quality geospatial data. Unfortunately, the broader impact is unlikely to be considered lawmakers, who often view geospatial technology in a stovepipe fashion.

Privacy legislation and regulation on geolocation: Geolocation is being caught up in global efforts to protect consumer privacy. Courts, legislators and regulators around the world are focusing on how to rein in the collection, use and transfer of geolocation information, encouraged by increasingly alarmist reporting by mainstream media about the threat geospatial technology poses to our privacy and physical safety. Unfortunately, such efforts often are being taken without an understanding of geospatial technology or how geolocation information is different from other types of information considered sensitive, such as an individual’s Social Security number or bank account. Thus far most of the media and regulatory attention has focused on large, multinational companies such as Google and Apple. However, legislation and regulations are being developed — and could be implemented over the next year — that would have a much broader impact and could make it much more difficult and expensive for a number of companies to collect, use and transfer geospatial data.

Efforts to use the United Nations to regulate information available on the Internet: Many governments remain concerned about the power of the Internet to disseminate information. As a result, there is a growing effort by certain countries to use the U.N. as a means to restrict the Internet or the availability of information that is made available over the Internet. For example, China and Russia recently proposed a Code of Conduct for Internet Security. One of the tenets would be to curb the “dissemination of information that incites terrorism, secessionism, or extremism or that undermines other countries’ political, economic and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment.” Similarly, India, Brazil and South Africa recently issued a joint statement calling upon a new global body within the U.N. to control the Internet. In addition, the 2010 Plenipotentiary Conference of the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union adopted a proposal to hold a meeting (subsequently postponed) on cybersecurity and “the illicit use” of satellite imagery and information and communications technologies. Numerous geospatial data types would be affected if efforts to restrict the availability of information over the Internet succeed.

One cannot predict the likely outcome of any of these matters, as there are too many variables to consider at this time. However, it is increasingly clear that collectively they will shape the future development of the geospatial industry. Therefore, it is important for geospatial businesses leaders to stay informed and, when possible, to weigh in on these important issues so that the collective voice of the geospatial industry can be heard.

 
Kevin Pomfret is the executive director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy and a partner at the law firm of LeClairRyan.