Remote sensing is all about our home planet, Earth. When humanity began to engage in space activities, it was all about moving and looking outward. How far could we go? How far could we see? Remote sensing turns the technology around and looks Earthward. Are the forests healthy? Is human land use changing? Is there a real estate market in that region? Can imagery and data be used to manage risk? These questions are making data the 21st century “oil”. It is a source of information that leads to knowledge. It is also a commodity that leads to wealth.
Because Earth is where humans live, remote sensing law addresses human questions. Who can collect data? Who can access data? Privacy. National sovereignty.
Remote sensing was first introduced as a specific legal topic in a 1970 paper submitted by Argentina to the Legal Subcommittee (LSC) of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Discussions regarding the legal implications of remote sensing were held in the mid-to-late 1970s. In 1975, the General Assembly recommended that the LSC continue consideration of remote sensing from space as a high priority. In 1984, the U.S. passed the first national remote sensing law and began the process of commercializing the U.S. national civil Landsat system that had been operating since 1972. This accelerated discussion in the LSC and culminated in the 1986 UN Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space (Principles). The Principles embody the nondiscriminatory access principle. It set a standard for behavior among sensed and sensing States while attempting to achieve a balance between their rights and interests. It provides a fluid regime that obliges sensing States to avoid harm to sensed States and to provide them with access to data concerning their own territory on a nondiscriminatory basis. This is the compromise between terrestrial sovereignty and the freedom to use space. The legitimacy of space-based remote sensing was accepted by ensuring that a sensed state would have access to the data of its territory on reasonable cost terms. In 1992, the U.S. national law was amended and returned Landsat to the public sector. It also authorized the private sector to commercialize high-resolution remote sensing technology. The 1990s and 2000s produced the enactment of national space laws that centered on remote sensing in numerous nations, most of whom had already been robust spacefaring nations for decades. These include Canada, France, Germany, and Japan. Some nations, like Belgium, do not have indigenous remote sensing capabilities but nonetheless, developed national remote sensing law because they participate in remote sensing consortia. These laws also address high-resolution capabilities. A common feature of all of these national laws, including the U.S., is the inclusion of the nondiscriminatory access policy. These laws address the commercial availability of high-resolution imagery and seek to ensure national interests within a commercial context. In the 1990s, the trend to internationalize Earth observation satellite operations began and important new agreements were formulated. The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, for example. In the 2010s and 2020s, rapidly evolving technology and markets are driving changes in some national laws and regulations, for example Canada and the U.S.