The limits of free speech continue to be tested in the case of the Austin, Texas-based Defense Distributed.
Ever since the “private defense firm” released design files for the world’s first 3D-printed handgun, the “Liberator,” in 2013, the government has searched for ways to keep those files off the Internet. But data dies hard. Nineteen states, and the District of Columbia, have petitioned a federal court to keep Defense Distributed from publishing files they say would give “dangerous criminals easy access to weapons.”
But the blueprints are already thriving on file-sharing websites and decentralized networks.
One such network is LBRY, a blockchain-based, “community-run digital marketplace.” Headquartered in the “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire, LBRY offers users what it describes as a “next generation BitTorrent”—a way to freely distribute digital content without middlemen or a central authority.
Recently, Defense Distributed files found their way to the LBRY blockchain. But it’s not a problem, says LBRY’s CEO and founder, Jeremy Kauffman, who maintains that the Liberator files—in and of themselves—are harmless. “To say that these files pose any danger is absolutely ridiculous,” Kauffman says. “There’s nothing in them that’s new, novel, or dangerous.”
He points to the fact that people have been building homemade guns long before 3D printers were even invented. In fact, while the Liberator offers the closest thing currently possible to a printable, fully functional plastic gun, it still requires the use of a metal firing pin, which ought to trigger metal detectors. Nevertheless, its invention has captured the attention of lawmakers, gun enthusiasts, and purveyors of Internet freedom alike.
Soon after Defense Distributed and its founder Cody Wilson submitted to the government’s initial take-down order, the blueprints for the Liberator and other 3D-printed weapons were mirrored across the web. To date, no legal action has threatened the other websites and file sharers who distribute the files, despite Wilson’s five-year courtroom saga. Kauffman says his lawyers have assured him that the files pose no legal threat to LBRY or its users. “We’ve taken a stance as a company that if it’s legal, we’re fine with it being distributed via our technology.” Besides, he says, “a set of instructions is not a weapon.” As it happens, though, that may be for a Seattle judge to decide.
The attorneys general of 19 states and D.C. are dead set on preventing the self-described “cryptoanarchist” Wilson from publishing his gun files, despite the fact that the matter appeared to be settled federally. Within months of first releasing the files in 2013, Wilson received notice from the State Department that the Liberator designs, among other files, violated an arms export law—the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. After a two-year back and forth with the State Department, Wilson sued the agency and eventually won his case when the State Department dropped its claim in mid-July of this year. The Liberator would, at last, be set free.
But it wasn’t so easy. As Wilson’s self-imposed August 1 deadline to resume publishing his gun files approached, a group of states filed suit against the State Department to prevent the agency from moving forward with its settlement with Defense Distributed. The states won a temporary restraining order from a U.S. District Court in Seattle on July 31, and plans to rule on the case by Monday, August 27. Despite the strong opposition that Defense Distributed has faced from gun-control advocates, both Wilson and his attorney Josh Blackman insist that the matter is a free-speech issue, not a gun-rights issue.
"Code is speech"
While LBRY’s Kauffman, a firm believer in the idea that “code is speech,” holds the same view, tech giants like Amazon and Facebook, on the other hand, have buckled under the pressure of controversy. On Thursday, Amazon yanked from its digital shelves a hard copy of “The Liberator Code Book: An Exercise in Free Speech,” which reprinted the code for Wilson’s 3D-printed gun. Previously, Facebook banned all websites from its platform that host Defense Distributed files, and five US senators are calling for Twitter and Google to do the same. Shortly after Facebook enacted its ban, Shopify shuttered Wilson’s digital storefront, capping off a series of moves that are reminiscent of previous attempts to deplatform unpopular speech online en masse.
Kauffman calls these patterns of centralized tech companies acting as arbiters of societal mores “very disturbing.” If you are a creator, he says, and you rely on these platforms to deliver your content, you should be worried. “You’ve built your business on top of quicksand, and the rules could change on you at any time.”
LBRY plays by a different set of rules altogether. It provides its users with both a native blockchain (an open-source “fat” protocol) and a decentralized browser through which creators and consumers can distribute and discover content. When users install a LBRY browser on their computers, they receive a small amount of the company’s native cryptocurrency (LBC) and can begin sharing virtually any files they wish.
As a business, LBRY chooses to focus on video content, aiming to become a kind of “YouTube without a Google.” As a protocol, however, Kauffman says LBRY is agnostic to the data—it moves around the “string of bits” whether they be a feature-length film, a PDF, or, in this case, the CAD files for a homemade handgun.
As the courts wrestle with the legality of Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed pistols, the push toward decentralization may force the public to confront a larger issue: Who gets to decide what kind of data lives free—or dies—on the Internet?