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Who is liable when damage is caused by Global Navigation Satellite System?

Who is responsible or liable when damage is caused by Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)? Is it fair enough to force a GNSS provider to bear the burden of compensation given that GNSS open signals are provided free of charge? And are current international laws adequate to deal with such issues? Dejian Kong will defend his PhD dissertation on December 17.

Benefits generated by GNSS have penetrated every corner of the earth. Systems such as GPS are used in car navigation and new technologies often present opportunities for increased safety, security and efficiency. Nevertheless, this is only one side of the coin. 'The more humanity depends on GNSS, the more risks it has to face', Kong explains. 'For example, in a case where a modern aircraft is equipped with a GNSS-based autopilot system, a defect in, or loss of GNSS signals could endanger hundreds of lives onboard that aircraft. If an air crash was caused by defective GNSS signals, who is responsible or liable for damage caused to passengers or any third parties on the ground? Could a GNSS provider be released from its civil liability by the doctrine of State Immunity if the provider is a public authority?'

In searching for answers for to these questions, the PhD Candidate has been carrying out research entitled Civil Liability for Damage Caused by Global Navigation Satellite System since late 2013. 'This research explores whether current international law is adequate to deal with the issue of civil liability in the context of the GNSS; in other words, whether the international law at present can ensure that parties suffering damage get fair, prompt and adequate compensation while balancing the interests of GNSS industry to maintain its sustainable development. If so, how does international law apply in cases related to GNSS civil liability? If not, where is the legal gap, and how should we move forward?'

Legal framework

'The issue of GNSS civil liability is not in a legal vacuum', Kong concludes. 'But neither international air law nor international space law presents much success on the adequacy of victims' compensation and fairness in the allocation and channel of civil liability.' To deal with such international civil liability, only an international legal framework can better ensure equitable and uniform compensation for all persons affected, irrespective of the State to which they belong. Therefore, the parallel cooperation of all relevant international organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is required.

Free of charge does not free GNSS providers from civil liability, Kong says. But, an authorized mechanism for GNSS safety-of-life signals with a policy on charges may ensure a higher degree of safety for safety-critical applications.

'This research offers a feasible roadmap to achieve an international solution for the issue of GNSS civil liability, and this roadmap can be adapted by relevant international organizations and States. The outcome of this research, in particular the recommendations, may gain the attention of international organizations such as ICAO, IMO, ICG, COPUOS and Unidroit for their further moves on the issue of GNSS civil liability.'

Supervisor Professor P.M.J. Mendes De Leon on Dejian Kong’s research:

'Not everyone will be familiar with the term GNSS. It stands for Global Navigation Satellite System, and is used far more often than we imagine. Users are all those on land or in the air who make use of a GNSS receiver, such as military units, carriers in the air, across water or on the roads, and land surveyors. There is still much unexplored territory in the legal regime in relation to GNSS, particularly concerning liability for transmitting satellite signals. For example, it is not clear who pays - if anyone is going to pay at all - when an airplane makes a mistake due to an incorrect signal from a satellite. Dejian Kong has succeeded in providing clear insights on these issues and proposing constructive and realistic solutions in research that for various reasons is highly commendable.'

Text: Floris van den Driesche

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