Legal expert calls for update to city's space laws

Growing use of commercial satellites exposes grey areas in copyright and accident liabilities

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 May, 2013, 5:49am

Hong Kong needs to update its 23-year-old outer space law to keep pace with the growing use of commercial satellites both in the city and overseas, a legal expert says.

Dr Zhao Yun, the city's top outer space law specialist and an associate professor with the University of Hong Kong, said there were many grey areas in the Outer Space Ordinance.

These included the copyright of raw data transmitted by satellites as well as the liabilities of different parties in the case of a collision in space.

Zhao said a review was needed to bring the ordinance up to date.

While the issue may sound far removed from everyday life, it could have real implications for Hong Kong. The city is the region's top telecommunication centre and the home of two of the region's top satellite companies - Asia Satellite Telecommunications Co Ltd and APT Satellite Co Ltd. Both are listed in Hong Kong and are licensed by the government to operate outer space activities for commercial purposes.

Zhao said that as there was no relevant case law in Hong Kong or overseas regarding disputes arising from outer space activities, most such disputes were settled through arbitration or negotiation instead of going to court.

Hong Kong introduced the Outer Space Act 1986 in 1990 and the Outer Space Ordinance in 1997. The ordinance requires an individual party which launches or operates a space object to obtain a licence from the government. But there is no legislation covering ownership and use of raw data collected from satellites. The Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance and Copyright Ordinance only protects information that has already been processed or analysed.

In contrast, the United States had clear legislation to cover these areas, the professor said. Another concern is the issue of liabilities in case of accidents involving private companies.

Previously we only looked at the public side of the space law. Now with commercialisation, a private law is becoming more and more important

The current Hong Kong ordinance only spells out issues concerning the Hong Kong government or the central government.

"There is a major trend of space commercialisation," Zhao said. "Previously we only looked at the public side of the space law. Now with commercialisation, a private law is becoming more and more important."

Last year, an international forum was held in Canada to discuss the increasing problems posed by space debris in satellite orbits and the legal issues that might arise.

The amount of space debris measuring 1cm to 10cm in orbit at all altitudes is estimated to be about 750,000 and there are an estimated 24,000 bigger pieces, according to a report by McGill University in Canada.

Asia Satellite in Hong Kong said it had obtained insurance to cover damage to satellites by debris and other objects.

"Satellite services are subject to international space law, and the principal body of international law relating to the use of outer space is the Outer Space Treaty," it said. "Countries which are party to the Outer Space Treaty or to other treaties regulating outer space activities are responsible for fulfilling their own obligations under such treaties."

Zhao warned, however, that even though international treaties and conventions on outer space activities had existed for decades, they are not well observed by nation states.