Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Should Congress Ban 'Wiki Weapons'...

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, a lot of national attention is focusing on the issue of gun control, and under the radar there is public policy being pursued related to plastic guns being made with 3D printers.

Hardly anyone seems aware of 3D printers yet, but basically they are computer printers that any individual can buy for their home PC, except that instead of printing text or graphics onto a piece of paper, it prints a three-dimensional (a.k.a. - "real") object using plastic.

As I've argued before, this is a potentially transformative technology because it democratizes manufacturing to the masses.  Anyone can now be a plastics manufacturer of goods, from the comfort of their home, at little cost.

However, the downside of this democratization is that it's also far easier for individuals to create objects that are harmful and dangerous.  There is even the potential for people to manufacture, yes, plastic guns.  And, in case you're wondering, this is no longer hypothetical.  Just last month, a 3D printed gun successfully fired off a few live rounds.

Trying to get ahead of the curve, Congressman Steve Israel has called for a legislative ban on such gun manufacturing using 3D printers.  He correctly notes that any gun control legislation that didn't include such a provision would be easily circumvented by such 3D printed plastic guns that would be capable of bypassing metal detectors.

On the other side of the argument, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing points out that, while 3D printed guns are problematic, there are major flaws with how Rep. Israel's ban would be implemented...

Firmware locks for 3D printers? A DMCA-like takedown regime for 3D shapefiles that can be used to generate plastic firearms (or parts of plastic firearms?). A mandate on 3D printer manufacturers to somehow magically make it impossible for their products to print out gun-parts?

Every one of those measures is a nonsense and worse: unworkable combinations of authoritarianism, censorship, and wishful thinking. Importantly, none of these would prevent people from manufacturing plastic guns. And all of these measures would grossly interfere with the lawful operation of 3D printers.

The conflicting ideals of public safety versus individual freedom lie at the heart of this debate over 3D printed "Wiki Weapons", just as they do in the larger issue of gun control, more generally.  But while politicians grapple with striking an appropriate Second Amendment balance, here's something else to consider:  3D printers are only as accessible a manufacturing tool for ordinary users as their software empowers them to be.  This is fundamentally a software question as much as it is a legislative one.  Technologists like Lawrence Lessig have been arguing for years that "code is law" and that software inevitably comes to embody certain core political values at the expense of others.  Let's put this theory to test.  Since 3D printing software is still in its nascent infancy, its future design will either evolve to make it easier for such Wiki Weapons to be manufactured, or more difficult, or, most likely, set the parameters for how limited these weapons will or will not be.

Computer programmers of the world, take note.  The resolution of this issue is as much in your hands as anyone's.



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