Trying to make 3D-printed guns un-happen is admirable, but futile

What do you do when someone has done something bad and you know there’s nothing you can do to stop them, but you’re in a position of authority and you have to try anyway? You brave humiliation, as the U.S. State Department just did when it told 3D-printed gun designer Defense Distributed to take down its designs.

It’s not that the State Department did anything wrong here – indeed, if I were in the U.S. I’d be alarmed if there was a lack of action on their part. It’s just that, even though Defense Distributed quickly complied, the exercise was utterly pointless. The files are out there, hosted on catch-me-if-you-can services such as Mega and The Pirate Bay, which has a whole “physibles” section devoted to downloadable 3D-printed object designs (a good chunk of which are for weapons parts, by the way).

Stop doing that thing I can’t control! Please?

Analogies are not hard to find. As a journalist who spent many years working in the U.K., I am acutely aware of the absurdity of that country’s libel laws in the information age. British publishers sometimes have to shy away from information that everyone else in the world is happily publishing online – it may keep them safe from being sued, but it certainly doesn’t stop British people from reading and sharing these scurrilous rumors (and, occasionally, facts).

In effect, the State Department’s attempt to enforce American arms control regulations amounts, in this case, to censorship. I don’t mean that in a free-speech-justifies-weaponry sense; I simply mean that what was once a matter of controlling the trade in physical hardware has now become a matter of trying to stem the flow of bits and bytes.

This is precisely the same problem faced by record labels suffering a premature album leak, or those trying to stem the aftermath of a Bradley Manning-style leak, or even the European regulators who want to institute a “right to be forgotten” when anyone who’s ever used the internet could tell them it’s a fool’s errand.

Can we talk about this?

Personally, I strongly disagree with what Defense Distributed’s Cody Wilson has done – I think it is irresponsible, and it may well lead to the loss of lives (though many have pointed out that it’s a heck of a lot easier to buy a ready-made gun than to make one yourself). However, in a way I’m glad that he’s done it.

I have zero doubt that similar designs have already been successfully executed by those who just don’t want to make a song and dance about it, and I would much rather have this sort of activity out in the open, stimulating an open debate. After all, what Wilson and the sharers of his designs did was completely inevitable. It may never become an issue on the scale of music and film “piracy” — I suspect more people like free media than want to shoot things — but it was always going to happen.

The challenge now, for regulators and for all of us, is to find a new approach to the control – or lack thereof – of things we don’t like, but that are now impossible to stop with mere border controls or targeted investigations. Perhaps most importantly, we need to find a way forward that doesn’t remove the liberties of those who like to share designs for less harmful objects.

It won’t be easy, but new problems require new solutions. Let’s talk.