ISRO’s national interest bullshit

For data and other objects, like images and videos, it places in the public domain, the Indian government attaches the GODL license – short for ‘government open data license’. The terms of this license are fairly straightforward: that

… all users are provided a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license to use, adapt, publish (either in original, or in adapted and/or derivative forms), translate, display, add value, and create derivative works (including products and services), for all lawful commercial and non-commercial purposes, and for the duration of existence of such rights over the data or information.

There is then an attribution requirement:

The user must acknowledge the provider, source, and license of data by explicitly publishing the attribution statement, including the DOI (Digital Object Identifier), or the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), or the URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) of the data concerned.

But despite the breadth of its permissions, the license isn’t obviously liberal because of some exceptions (emphasis added):

The license does not cover the following kinds of data: a. personal information; b. data that is non-shareable and/or sensitive; c. names, crests, logos and other official symbols of the data provider(s); d. data subject to other intellectual property rights, including patents, trade-marks and official marks; e. military insignia; f. identity documents; and g. any data that should not have been publicly disclosed for the grounds provided under section 8 of the Right to Information [RTI] Act, 2005.

Note the last one, (g). I have been interested in the GODL license because it is the license on images produced by ISRO and uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons catalogue. I have written about the problems with this licensing setup at length here (principally, a. the license only covers objects published after 2012 and b. ISRO retains the copyright on all its products through a separate statement on its website). In this context, the exception under Section 8 of the RTI Act is notable: it seems quite reasonable, except for the fact that the Indian government has of late applied this limitation to the most innocuous of queries under the Act.

A new case in point came with Pradeep Mohandas’s newsletter this morning. Twitter user @frustratedpluto filed an RTI applicatio with ISRO seeking answers to 10 queries, transcribed below from screenshots the user shared on Twitter. Look at the responses they received.

1. Provide what constitutes in Lander Sensor Performance Test (LSPT) Phase-3 test in general?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

2. Has LSPT Phase-3 test for Chandrayaan-3 has been conducted? If yes, provide me when was it done? If no, provide when will it likely to be conducted?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

3. Provide me the number of Lander Actuator Performance Test (LAPT) were done for Chandrayaan-2?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

4. Provide me if any LAPT test done for five engine configuration?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

5. Are there any LAPT planned for Chandrayaan-3 mission? If yes, then provide me names of ISRO facilities would be used to conduct it?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

6. Provide me the location of NASA LRA Payload onboard Vikram lander of Chandrayaan-2? (Please illustrate on a diagram if possible).

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

7. Provide me finalised design of Chandrayaan-3 mission

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

8. Provide me the expected launch timeline of Aditya L1 and Exposat mission

Based on the present assessment and taking into account the COVID restrictions, the launch is planned in third Quarter of 2022.

9. Provide me the number of payloads for Aditya L1 have been received to ISRO from PI institutes?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

10. Provide me how much time will Aditya L1 take to reach L1 point after being lifted off from ground?

Mission planning is under progress and it will be decided in due course.

This is an absolute travesty. Given the extent to which ISRO has invoked exemptions under Section 8 of the RTI Act, you might think Chandrayaan 3 is an orbital weapon, not an S&T mission. These replies, such as they are, have one of two possible implications: either, as @frustratedpluto has noted, they reflect an irresponsible laziness on the part of ISRO staff responsible for addressing RTI applications or they provide a peek into what the government considers to be proprietary information in the nationalistic sense – something to be fiercely guarded against threats as considerable, and as vague, as the national interest.

A notable government official said at a meeting I attended early last year that one shouldn’t attribute to malice what could be explained by incompetence. But here, confronted with a choice between these two causes of ISRO’s reticence, accusing it of something as slight as incompetence would be laughable.

This is more so when:

a) We have all been witness to a significant decline in ISRO’s outreach efforts over the last half-decade or so and, more importantly, the people’s and journalists’ ability to access its scientists for information on ISRO missions;

b) K. Sivan’s leadership of the organisation has been marked by statements from his and his colleagues’ offices that seem grossly out of touch with reality (perhaps most famously: Sivan’s comment that the failed Chandrayaan 2 mission was a “98% success”)

(A related point here is that by claiming that details of tests like the LAPT and the LSPT are central to India’s scientific and technical interests to the extent that ISRO can’t share their details, the organisation is letting itself, and its mandate and goals, become appropriated by the political establishment, as well as – thanks to its troll army – helping sustain narratives that the establishment is hard at work protecting India from previously unknown threats, one of which might be people like @frustratedpluto asking ‘dangerous’ questions about science missions); and

c) The country’s political leadership has made subtle attempts to coopt ISRO missions to its electoral advantage.

In fact, the importance The Party places on giving the impression that is in complete control of The Situation (which can be any situation) is impossible to overstate:

The current Government of India is clearly determined to constantly be right and constantly on higher ground, nothing less. To realise these conditions, it lies, evades, deceives and hides when a time comes for it to say it was wrong. When there is a mistake, or even when something entirely out of its control happens, it tries to lie the problem away, either to give the impression that the problem didn’t exist in the first place or that it has found a solution against all odds.

‘India COVID-19 Response Suggests ‘Scientific Superpower’ Tag an Impossible Dream’, The Wire Science, December 2020

On top of all this, @frustratedpluto has been trolled on Twitter for seeking details of the final design of Chandrayaan 3. I really cannot see a straight line between this question and the answer that sharing this information would “affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest” of India, but it is tempting to see here glimpses of the Supreme Leader’s Midas touch and its ongoing disruption of our scientific enterprise.

In this context, the GODL license may be small fry – but the fact remains that the government could take it away or limit its terms, in turn further affecting our access to even the photos and videos that ISRO produces, if the government behind it senses even a small threat to its sense of control, leave alone perfectly harmless details about upcoming science missions.

Featured image: ISRO’s PSLV C45 before launch (with modified colours). Credit: Twitter/ISRO.