On May 5, 2013, a video was posted to Youtube showing an AR-15 rifle pumping hundreds of rounds in quick succession. At first glance, the video may seem like just another of the many homemade productions on the video sharing website, but this rifle was unique. Unlike most AR-15s, which are jet black in color, this rifle’s lower receiver – its legally controlled constituent – was white. This rifle was the first to use a 3D printed lower receiver made from open source schematics. It worked exceptionally well, judging by the hundreds of rounds it was able to fire without malfunction. And you, yes you, can make one for yourself.
Defense Distributed, the group that uploaded the video, has made available an entire menagerie of 3D-printable products. Among the most notable are a 30 round magazine circumventing California’s 10 round limit, nicknamed the “Cuomo”, and a plastic pistol that can easily be smuggled past metal detectors. By the time the State Department asked Defense Distributed to remove schematics from their website, it was too late. The files were already being shared on torrent sites like The Pirate Bay, where they were liberally available for download outside the reach of US law.
From conception, the internet has been intended to promote the free and open flow of information. In the old days of the internet, this capability was relatively harmless. Most people could only send primitive text messages to each other through mailing lists and forums. Today, however, it is possible to share many more types of information. For most people, this means being able to send an email to a relative on the other side of the world or pirating an episode of Breaking Bad.
Furthermore, both online and offline technologies are giving new and unprecedented capabilities to the average person. Consider Defense Distributed’s 3D printed guns. In the past, firearm designs were patented and thereby difficult to obtain. Furthermore, firearms required expensive heavy machinery for production, and had to be operated by skilled craftsmen. The old model of firearms manufacturing is expensive in both human and financial capital and is feasible only for mass production. Because of the difficulty in manufacturing guns, it was possible for governments to regulate the few large gun manufacturers (by banning civilian possession of fully automatic firearms, for example).
Today, the manufacturing landscape has changed. Anyone can now download a schematic for a lower receiver from a torrent site, print it on a relatively affordable 3D printer, and buy unregulated gun parts to assemble a fully functional assault rifle – all from the comfort of home. And it’s all legal. This illustrates a cause for concern – associated laws have simply not kept pace with evolving technology.
The democratizing nature of the internet has a perilous corollary – the free and open flow of information does not distinguish between sharing cat photos and divulging state secrets. Technologies such as Tor, a highly secure network that enables anonymous information flows, have facilitated covert activities that have protected Occupy movement advocates from anti-movement crackdowns, as much as they have shielded criminals from the police. Sites like Silk Road, with the aid of Tor and the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, have facilitated millions of dollars in illegal drug sales, leaving law enforcement officers scrambling in their wake. On the corollary, the increasing ubiquity of 3D printing and open-source designs may one day allow for the production of other dangerous goods at will. Regulators may find themselves in a quagmire – it is possible to restrict the flow of selected information, but such an effort will require the active surveillance of vast internet activity. Given the complex tensions between security and secrecy, it remains to be seen how illicit information flows may be monitored amidst the troves of petabytes that constitute daily internet traffic.
As technology becomes available to circumvent law enforcement efforts, contraband goods with significant demand – be they digital goods like pirated movies or physical goods like guns or drugs – will become increasingly available to the average citizen. If left unchecked, society may one day be confronted with dystopian scenarios: what happens when cheap, deregulated firearms are available to anybody with a computer? Indeed, the future threatens to become a libertarian paradise – not necessarily due to any ideological shift, but due to technology that would make it impossible for it to be anything but.