Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 10 Spatial Law and Policy Stories from 2012

There were a number of important developments in Spatial Law and Policy in 2012.  The following is a list of what I consider to be the Top 10 stories.  As in past years, these stories are global in nature and cut across both technology platforms and legal and policy disciplines. Each can be expected to have an impact on the collection, use, storage and distribution of geospatial data in the coming years. . 

Proposed Combination of Digital Globe and GeoEye - In December 2012, Digital Globe and GeoEye announced that their respective shareholders had approved the proposed combination of the two companies. As of December 30, 2012 it appears Department of Justice approval is the only significant remaining hurdle.  Assuming such approval is obtained, the combination of the two companies would reduce the number of US based providers of high resolution satellite imagery for commercial purposes to a single company.  One can state - with some justification - that this consolidation from three US companies in the mid 2000's - Digital Globe (then EarthWatch), GeoEye (then OrbImage) and Space Imaging (now part of GeoEye) - to one company is a reflection of the commercial marketplace. However, it is to a great extent also an indictment of the continued ambivalence within Washington as to the role of commercial satellite imagery for defense and intelligence purposes. 

Increased civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles - In February 2012, Congress enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (P.L. 112-95) (the "Act"). The Act directs the FAA to accelerate the integration of unmanned aircraft (UAVs) into the US national airspace system.  Other countries around the world are also looking for ways to facilitate the use UAVs for a variety of purposes. Increased use of drones for civilian, commercial, academic and recreational purposes will have a number of significant impacts on the geospatial industry. For example, it will result in an abundance of imagery and other data to be processed, analyzed and stored. In addition, it will heighten the perceived privacy risks associated with imagery collected by aerial (and even satellite) platforms. As a result, in the future we can expect to see increased efforts to regulate the collection and use of imagery, such as the Farmer's Privacy Act of 2012 - which would put restrictions on the use of aerial and satellite imagery by the US Environmental Protection Agency to monitor farmers' compliance with the Federal Water Pollution Controls Act.

US Supreme Court's decision in US v. Jones - As with most court decisions, the facts of US. v Jones are critical in understanding the importance and the reach of the Supreme Court's decision. In Jones, the government had obtained a search warrant to install a tracking device on a vehicle registered to the suspect's wife. The warrant authorized the installation of the device in the District of Columbia within ten days. However agents installed the device on the 11th day and in Maryland. They then followed the suspect's movements in the wife's car for 28 days and based in part on the information collected, subsequently secured an indictment of Jones and others on drug trafficking conspiracy charges. The District Court suppressed the tracking data obtained while the car was parked at the suspect's residence, but held the remaining data was admissable because Jones had no reasonable expectation of privacy when the vehicle was on public roads. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the  District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court's opinion, concluding that the admission of the evidence obtained from a tracking device used for almost a month without a warrant violated the suspect's Fourth Amendment rights

In January, 2012, the Supreme Court affirmed the Circuit Court's decision, and held that the suspect's Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. However, interesting (and somewhat surprisingly) the court held that the attachment of the tracking device to the automobile without a proper warrant had been a trespass and therefore was invalid under the Fourth Amendment. As a result, the issue of whether following an individual on public roads for a long period of time through technological means without a warrant is itself a violation of the Fourth Amendment remains unresolved.  However, it is clear from reading the majority opinion as well as the concurring opinions of Justice Sotomayer and Justice Alito, that courts will continue to struggle with this very important - and difficult - issue.   

China opening up Beidu for Public Use - In December of this year, China announced that it would make the interface with its Beidu global navigation satellite system (GNSS) available to the public. According to Directions magazine, the utility of this interface will be limited due to the price of the receivers and the limited availability of the service (it will work best in Asia). However, it is expected to have a  more global impact by 2020.

This announcement has a number of potential implications. First, one wonders whether China will see the same type of growth in the geospatial industry as was seen in the United States after President Clinton turned off GPS selective availability in 2000. More broadly, it is another indication as to the importance that China is placing to geospatial technology and geomatics. According to a recent report from the National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation of China, the country is taking steps to "build China into a leading country in geomatics". These steps include the launch in January, 2012 of China's first civilian high-resolution stereo mapping satellite, significant investments in a national spatial data infrastructure, capacity development and the growth in a geomatics industry.  In conjunction with other recent announcements and initiatives, it is clear that the Chinese government recognizes the power and value of location. 

Budget Pressures Having An Impact on Remote Sensing Satellites- Economic concerns and budget shortfalls over the past five years are having a significant impact on government operations. In 2012 it became clear that these issues were having a negative impact on environmental monitoring satellites. For example, the budget in Europe for earth observation took a signficant hit. Similarly in the United States, budget shortfalls are one of the primary reasons given in a 2012 National Research Council report as to why earth observation in the US is in a "precarious position".  While other countries have stepped into this growing earth observation void (see discussion of China herein) the US and Europe will continue to play a significant role in earth observation for the foreseeable future. As a result, it is important that any budget cuts in this area be balanced against the growing connection between accurate and real-time earth observation data and the economy.

Push for Enhanced Geospatial Information Management - The need for effective geospatial information management became increasingly clear in 2012. This is due in large part to the United Nations Initiative on Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM).  (For more information on GGIM click here.)   As a result, government across the globe are looking at developing laws, policies and regulations that support better geospatial information management in general and national spatial data infrastructures (NSDIs) in particular.  

However, such efforts will have to overcome a number of obstacles. These include  legal/regulatory impediments to the collection and use of geospatial information, such as a proposed bill in Pakistan that would restrict mapping and surveying activities. They also include administrative/bureaucratic obstacles, such as those highlighted in a recent report published by the US Government Accounting Office (GAO).  Moreover, it is important to recognize that effective geospatial information management is not achieved through a single directive, but rather a holistic legal and policy framework.  

Efforts to Regulate Internet in Doha meeting - Last year I cited the continuing efforts to regulate the internet as one of the top 10 stories in 2011.  Such efforts continued this year, and culminated in a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Doha in December 2012. After much acrimonious debate, a treaty was signed by most member states that will not impact internet operations. However, this debate is not going away, and the threat remains of internet regulation on an international level that will impact the collection, use, storage and/or distribution of geospatial data.  Alternatively, there is a risk of a Balkanized-internet that will make the distribution of geospatial data over the internet difficult.

Increased Calls for Legislation To Protect Geolocation Privacy - The issue of privacy/data protection remained an important one in for legislators, regulators and courts around the world in 2012. New or enhanced privacy or data protection legislation/regulation took effect in a number of countries, including Singapore, Mexico and Australia. In addition, there were increased efforts in 2012 to protect an individual's privacy from a location standpoint. Efforts were most advanced in Europe, which is considering updating its data protection directive with a regulation that would broaden the definition of location information that is subject to protection.  In the United States, there were numerous bills introduced in Congress that would regulate the collection or use of location information (see e.g,. Sen Franken's Location Privacy Protection Act recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.)  Expect the issue of location privacy to be even a bigger story in 2013.

OpenStreetMap switches from Creative Commons to ODbL license - In September, after much discussion, OpenStreetMap switched from licensing its data under Creative Commons licenses to the Open Database License (ODbL).  This switch has a number of implications. For example, the ODbL license requires that "If you publicly use any adapted version of this database, or works produced from an adapted database, you must also offer that adapted database under the ODbL."  [Italics added].  This "share-alike" provision has resulted in both confusion and concern among certain segments of the geospatial community as they try to determine how best to incorporate OSM data into their products and services while still executing on their respective business plans. More broadly, the switch highlights the importance of licensing in the geospatial industry and the challenging of aggregating data sets with different license agreements. (The Centre is hosting a Licensing of Geospatial Data Workshop on January 24th in Tysons Corner. For more information, please click here.)

Apple Maps - In 2012 Apple taught the non-geospatial world two important things about maps when it decided to move away from Google for its maps. First, that accurate maps are important. Second, that it is difficult (and expensive) to make an accurate map of the entire globe.  This realization has had a number of consequences. For example, the financial community is paying more attention to the geospatial industry.  More importantly from a legal standpoint, there has been renewed media interest in the potential for satnav errors to result in injury. You can be sure that the personal injury lawyers are following these developments.  

This summary is prepared based upon weekly updates prepared for members of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy. For more information about becoming a corporate or individual member of the Centre, please click here.  

1 comment:

Richard Mooney Attorney said...

That's really great. Thanks for providing this all information to the public. Because as everyone not know about this. I appreciate it.
Attorney Richard Mooney