The Next Battle for Internet Freedom Could Be Over 3D Printing

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Editor’s note: Rick Kelly (@_rickkelly) is an adjunct political science professor at BYU-Idaho and MBA student at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Remember SOPA?

In case you’ve forgotten already, earlier this year some Congressional legislators attempted to protect intellectual property through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The language in the bill was far-reaching and ambiguous; thus prompting concern that application of the law would extend beyond its intent.

TechCrunch’s own John Biggs explained that SOPA “would allow the US government to essentially ‘turn off’ part of the Internet that it doesn’t like.” Many people reacted adversely to the proposed legislation and after a wave of activism encouraged by non-profits, corporate titans, and thought leaders, SOPA never came close to being enacted.

The internet has traditionally represented freedom to many people. It has become a global commons where information is rapidly and freely proliferated, unimpeded by governments or corporations. The fear that this freedom would be lost formed a large part of the backlash against SOPA earlier this year. Soon, we will face another wave of potentially liberty-limiting legislation involving our internet activity.

What will be the source of this legislation? 3D printing.

To date, 3D printing has primarily been used for rapid commercial prototyping largely because of its associated high costs. Now, companies such as MakerBot are selling 3D printers for under $2,000. A current project on Kickstarter is attempting to raise funds for a 3D printer with a price of $1,199. Given the typical price and product cycle we’ve seen in the past, it would be no shock to see 3D printers selling for under $500 in a few short years.

Eventually, 3D printing will enable individuals to print just about anything from the comfort of their own homes. Already, hobbyists who own 3D printers are creating jewelry and toys. In the commercial space, 3D printing can print homes, prosthetics, and replacement machine parts.

3D printers can also print guns and synthetic chemical compounds (aka drugs). In July, user HaveBlue reported on the AR15 forum that he had used a mid-1990s. 3D printer to create a fully functional .22 caliber gun. He wrote: “It’s had over 200 rounds of .22 [caliber rounds] through it so far and runs great!” The 3D printed portion of the gun was printed in plastic with a reported material cost of about $100.

The potential policy implications are obvious. If high-quality weapons can be printed by anyone with a 3D printer, and 3D printers are widely available, then law enforcement agencies will be forced to monitor what you’re printing in order to maintain current gun control laws. Otherwise, guns could become more widely available and firearms permits won’t matter to someone like James Holmes or Jeffrey Johnson. They can circumvent firearms laws by simply printing their weapons from a 3D printer for under $100.

That is, unless federal agencies monitor every CAD file sent to a printer, whether or not it is harmless. Monitoring of every file sent to a printer means that federal agencies would need access to every home and office network.

It is likely impossible that the government will be able to successfully prevent every illicit item from being printed, chiefly because a 3D printer would not have to be connected to the internet to print from a local computer. However, you can expect that a time will come when perhaps well-meaning politicians will attempt to prevent guns and synthetic drugs from being created using 3D printers. If passed, the resulting laws would be draconian in their invasion of privacy while simultaneously ineffectual in preventing the creation of the products they seek to prohibit.

Either we allow for the ambiguity that freedom and unregulated 3D printing will bring, or we enforce far-reaching laws that may decrease liberty without changing results.  For those who appreciate the internet because of its democratizing effects and freedom, I believe the choice is clear. We should decide now that we will oppose any law that attempts to undermine freedom on the internet, no matter the consequences.

[Image via Wikipedia.]