THE NOTION OF a 3-D printable gun has become the perfect flashpoint in a new conflict between digital arms control and free speech. Should Americans be allowed to say and share whatever they want online, even if that “speech” is a blueprint for a gun? The State Department has now answered that question with a resounding “no.”
In the last few days, the State Department has issued two new statements confirming its intention to act as gatekeeper for when Americans can legally publish online data that could allow someone to digitally fabricate a gun. And those statements outline how it plans to restrict those publications as a controlled “foreign export” of munitions.
Earlier this week, the State Department sent a letter to the controversial gun access group Defense Distributed, confirming that it will require the group to get specific permission from the government before publishing its 3-D printable gun files online. That warning comes more than two years after the State Department sent Defense Distributed an initial letter telling it to take its gun files off its website pending a decision about their legality.
And in a separate filing to the federal register last week, the State Department also wrote that it intends to require prior approval for the online publication of any “technical data” that, vaguely defined, would allow for the creation of weapons, an even broader swathe of files. The agency’s statement warns that publishing those weapon files to the Internet, with its global connections, could amount to violating the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR) by exporting controlled weapons data to a foreign country—hardly different, by its definition, from sending missile schematics to Iran.
“Before posting information to the Internet, you should determine whether the information is ‘technical data.’ You should review the [United State Munitions List], and if there is doubt about whether the information is ‘technical data,’ you may request a commodity jurisdiction determination from the Department,” reads the State Department’s filing. “Posting ‘technical data’ to the Internet without a Department or other authorization is a violation of the ITAR even absent specific knowledge that a foreign national will read the ‘technical data.’”
The State Department’s renewed attempt to control the spread of gun files online comes just as the conflict between the control of digital weapons “exports” and free speech is coming to a head: A month ago, Defense Distributed sued the State Department on First Amendment grounds, arguing that its right to free speech is being violated by the State Department’s demand for prior approval of its printable gun file uploads.
“Just because information can be used for some bad purpose doesn’t make it illegal to publish it,” says Matthew Goldstein, an export control lawyer representing Defense Distributed. “This isn’t just a firearms case, even though it deals with firearms. It’s really a free speech case.”
But Defense Distributed’s lawsuit also includes the argument that the group’s second amendment rights—its access to firearms—were trampled by the State Department’s export control restrictions. Cody Wilson, the group’s founder, argues that the State Department’s new declaration of its control over online gun files only makes that violation clearer. “It’s a land grab,” Wilson says. “With this instituted set of powers, you have a first and second amendment in name only.”