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Exporting the Second Amendment

Ultimaker_3D_Printer_(16656068207).jpgOne thing about a fast-moving world in a time of technological change is that it's easy to lose track of things in the onslaught. This week alone - the UK Information Commissioner's Office fined Facebook the pre-GDPR maximum £500,000, ; Uber is firing human safety drivers because it's scaling back its tests of autonomous vehicles; and Twitter is currently deleting more than 1 million fake accounts a *day*.

Until a couple of days ago, one such forgotten moment in internet history was the 2013 takedown of the 3D printing designs site Defcad after it was prosecuted for publishing blueprints for various guns. In the years since, Andy Greenberg writes at Wired, Defcad owner Cody Wilson went on to sue the US Department of Justice, arguing that in demanding removal of his gun blueprints from the internet the DoJ was violating both the First Amendment (freedom of speech) and the Second (the right to bear arms). Wilson has now won his case in a settlement.

It's impossible for anyone with a long memory of the internet's development to read this and not be immediately reminded of the early 1990s battles surrounding the PC-based encryption software PGP. In a 1993 interview for a Guardian piece about his investigation, PGP creator Phil Zimmermann explicitly argued that keeping strong cryptography available for public use, like the right to bear arms enshrined in the Second Amendment, was essential to limit the power of the state.

The reality is that crypto is much more of a leveler than guns are. Few governments are so small that a group of civilians can match their military might. Crypto is much more of a leveler. In World War II, only governments had enough resources to devise and crack the strongest encryption. Today, which government has a cluster the size of GAFA's?

More immediately relevant is the fact that the law the DoJ used in both cases - Wilson and Zimmermann - is the same one: the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Based on crypto's role in World War II, ITAR restricted strong encryption restricted as a weapon of strategic importance. The Zimmerman investigation focused on whether he had exported PGP to other countries by uploading it to the internet. The contemporaneous Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conferences quivered with impassioned fury over the US's insistence that export restrictions were essential. It all changed around 1996, when cryptographer Daniel Bernstein won his court case against the US government over ITAR's restrictions. By then cryptography's importance in ecommerce made restrictions untenable anyway. Lifting the restrictions did not end the arguments over law enforcement access; these continue today.

The battles over cryptography, however, are about a technology that is powerfully important in preserving the privacy and security of everyone's data, from banks to retailers to massive numbers of innocent citizens. Human rights organizations argue that the vast majority who are innocent citizens have a right to protect the confidentiality of the records we keep of our conversations with our doctors, lawyers, and best friends. In addition, the issues surrounding encryption are the same irrespective of location and timing. For nearly three decades myriad governments have cited the dangers of terrorists, drug dealers, pedophiles, and organized crime in demanding free access to encrypted data. Similarly, privacy activists worldwide have responded with the need to protect journalists, whistleblowers, human rights activists, victims of domestic violence, and other vulnerable people from secret snooping and the wrongness of mass surveillance.

Arguments over guns, however, play out as differently outside the US as arguments about data protection, competition, and antitrust laws do. Put simply, outside the US there is no Second Amendment, and the idea that guns should be restricted is much less controversial. European friends often comment on how little Americans trust their government.

For this reason, it's likely that publishing blueprints for DIY guns, though now explicitly ruled legal in the US, will become a new excuse for censoring the internet for other governments. In the US, the Electronic Frontier Foundation backed Wilson as a matter of protecting free speech; it's doubtful that human rights organizations elsewhere will see gun designs in the same way.

One major change since this case first came up: 3D printing has not become anything like the mass phenomenon its proponents were predicting in 2013. Then, many thought 3D printing was the coming thing. Scientists like Hod Lipson were imagining the new shapes and functions strange materials composited molecule by molecule would imminently create. Then, few people had 3D printers in their homes.

But today...although 3D printing has made some inroads in manufacturing and prototyping, consumers still find 3D printers too expensive for their limited usefulness, even though they can be fun. Some gain access to them through Hackspaces/FabLabs/Makerspaces, but that movement, though important and valuable, seems similarly to have largely stalled a few years back. Lipson's future may still happen. But it isn't happening yet to any appreciable degree.

Instead, the future that's rushing at us is the Internet of Things, where the materials are largely familiar and what's different is that they're laced with lectronics that make them programmable. There is more to worry about in "smart" guns than in readily downloadable designs for guns.

Illustrations: Ultimaker 3D printer in London, 2014 (via Wikimedia)

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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