A publishing dilemma
Geospatial agency considers restricting access to its maps
- By Frank Tiboni
- Feb 06, 2005
Officials at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency want to bar the public from viewing the agency's aeronautical and navigational data and publications, a decision that has upset many who use that information. Some librarians, commercial mapmakers and public-interest group members say they will launch a campaign to retain access.
Without seeking public comment, NGA officials announced plans in November 2004 to stop selling and distributing the aeronautical and navigational data because of copyright concerns and worries about terrorist attacks. Last December, however, they said they would seek comments before making a final decision.
NGA officials have proposed removing the agency's flight information publications, Digital Aeronautical Flight Information File and navigation planning charts from public sale and distribution. All are now available copyright-free as hard copies or online at NGA's Web site.
Agency officials want to make the information available only to authorized warfighters, intelligence analysts, defense contractors and government officials through the Defense Department's distribution system.
Jim Mohan, an NGA spokesman, said the agency is considering the action partly because an increasing number of foreign source providers are claiming intellectual property rights or warning agency officials that they intend to copyright their source material.
NGA employees produce the navigational products from data they obtain from military and commercial satellites and information systems. They also rely on information provided by governments and businesses in foreign countries.
NGA officials have had agreements with foreign source providers in which they shared data with no money exchanging hands. But some providers are now questioning the arrangements under which they provide data to NGA that the agency makes available in a public database.
U.S. businesses take that publicly available data and resell it. Mohan said some foreign providers are asking why the businesses aren't buying the information directly from them.
In addition to those pressures, terrorism concerns also prompted NGA officials to consider curtailing access to the navigational information. "Since Sept. 11,  all government agencies must look at all of the data they put out and decide if it should be withdrawn," Mohan said.
Others see NGA's proposal in a different light. "This is another indication that the Bush administration is whittling away at open government, access to public information and freedom of information," said Wayne Madsen, a privacy expert and senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public-interest group that focuses on privacy, civil liberties and First Amendment issues. "This is a bad day for government and open access."
Aviators, mariners, mapmakers and librarians use the three NGA products, said Patrice McDermott, associate director of the Office of Government Relations at the American Library Association, a group that promotes libraries and public access to information. "This will have a significant impact on a lot of stakeholders," she said.
McDermott said agency officials erred when they did not ask for public comment when they first issued the announcement in the Federal Register Nov. 16, 2004. But they rectified the situation when they chose to seek comments through June 30, she said.
If NGA officials stick to the original proposal, their decision would hurt people who rely on the NGA's copyright-free data, said Kent Lee, president and chief executive officer of East View Cartographic, which makes customized hard-copy and digital air, land and sea maps from data obtained from public and private sources.
"NGA bureaucrats are being lazy," Lee said. "They don't want to do the incremental but necessary additional work to keep their data public. But this is the reality of dealing with copyrighted inputs for global digital products."
Last year, Australian government officials told NGA officials that they would no longer share their copyrighted map data because they considered public access to NGA's tools a loophole for their products to get into the hands of commercial and database publishers.
"The withdrawal of Australian data has created a hole in NGA's global databases and forced them to scramble for a solution to bring the Australians back in," Lee said, citing the importance of their Pacific Rim data and maps of Indonesia.
NGA officials could still make the agency's navigational products publicly available by selling copyrighted versions or selecting copyright-free material for public access. "NGA officials say their customers are warfighters and intelligence analysts," Lee said. "Guys, you have always been serving the public but didn't know it."
NGA officials have received 300 comments on their proposed restrictions.