Guilt or innocence used to be a binary equation. That’s not to say determining it was easy for our predecessors. Without the forensic and DNA evidence available to us now, it was undoubtedly more difficult for them to come to a conclusion they could be confident in. But the equation was simple. It was binary. Either the person was guilty or not guilty. They either did it or didn’t commit a crime.
But recently, albeit rarely, the government has been holding people responsible for the actions of other people.
Truthfully, this has been a problem since the 90s. But we have been shoehorning our modern day problems into our ancient binary solution. We saw it with Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, who were held responsible for how other people used their Napster software. We saw it more recently with Ross Ulbricht, who is serving life in prison because other people sold drugs using his software. We can go all the way back to the failed prosecution of Phil Zimmermann, the inventor of PGP, for exporting “weapons” by sharing his encryption software online.
And now we have Cody Wilson and his company Defense Distributed. He hasn’t been arrested or charged with any crime, yet. But the government is undoubtedly coming after him. And it will only take one mass shooting perpetrated with a 3D printed gun, before people start calling for him to be held responsible.
The key point here is: should tool makers be held responsible for criminals that use their tools? Despite the few examples above, the answer has usually been no. Smith & Wesson isn’t held responsible when a murder is committed with a gun they manufactured. Amazon isn’t held responsible when counterfeit goods are sold on their platform. Your ISP isn’t held responsible when they deliver you copyrighted data.
They key difference tends to be what the court rules to be the intention of the tool. A gun can be used for self-defense or hunting or practice. Amazon can be used to buy legitimate goods. Napster was primarily used to share copyrighted music. The Silk Road was primarily used to buy drugs. Never mind that royalty free music was shared on Napster or that the Silk Road had a smattering of legal goods. It is all about the intention of the tool and that can be murky territory.
The controversial Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is key to understanding the current law and how the government views these cases currently.
That section gives sites immunity from the crimes that its users commit, with some exceptions. How those exceptions are doled out have oftentimes been conflicting. Nevertheless, when the government is determined to shut down a service, it usually finds legal justification for doing so.
In one small way, the government’s current policy works. It did manage to shut down and stop the use of some of these tools. Napster is gone. The Silk Road is gone. But in both instances, they failed to stop the movement. Napster was replaced with dozens of copycats (Kazaa, Bearshare, Limewire) before those to were replaced by a more resistant system in Bittorrent. The Silk Road was replaced with its own copycats, and its equivalent to Bittorrent will undoubtedly enter the stage at some point.
But, at least their actions had the bare minimum effect of shutting down those specific services. That will not be the case in the future. Shutting down Cody Wilson’s site will not prevent 3D printed guns, nor will it force copycat alternatives to arrive that can be similarly shut down. The “whack-a-mole” strategy that is largely unsuccessful and costly will seem like the “Good ole days” for the government in the future. That’s because the “service” being offered by Wilson, other than a few physical tools, is simple data and methods to share data en masse already exist.
According to sculpteo.com, 3D printing file sizes shouldn’t be larger than 50MBs. That is an incredibly small file size. Plans for hundreds of 3D printed guns could easily be shared using Bittorrent, or posted on the Dark Web. Since most files are a lot smaller, on the order of 2KBs, it is entirely possible to share them on a throwaway Tumblr page, hide them within images or even post them on the bitcoin blockchain.
At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with Crypto. The answer is that how the government responds to Cody Wilson will have major implications for DApp creators. The government will be unable to stop the revolution Wilson has started. They can, however, throw him in jail. That would be immoral, but it is within their power.
And if they do it to him, then they can do it to anyone else, including DApp creators. And that could severely retard innovation.
For an example, look at Augur. It was designed to facilitate online betting in a decentralized manner. But its decentralized nature has led to unpredictable results. Since it allows people to bet on any real world event, markets have appeared allowing users to wager on when public people will die. This is a very real problem because it may encourage an assassination attempt.
In fact, such markets have been called assassination markets. If one person makes a 1 million dollar bet that President Trump will die in office, that essentially becomes a 1 million dollar bounty on the President’s head. In theory, someone could assassinate the President and, if they get away with it, collect on that prize.
That isn’t what Augur was designed for. Its creators had sports and political betting in mind. But Augur now lives on its own and its creators have limited influence. If Cody Wilson can be blamed for a mass shooting using a 3D printed gun, why couldn’t the Augur developers be held responsible for an assassination that was funded with their tool? 3D printed guns are meant to be printed, but I highly doubt Wilson’s intention is to create more mass murders.
If the government holds Wilson responsible for what someone else does with the tools he created, what is to stop them from doing the same with Augur and other DApp creators?
And will news of that discourage other DApp creators from innovating? If Augur is attacked, it will no longer be enough to have good intentions. With the current law and Section 230, it seems unlikely that either the creators of Augur or Cody Wilson will be held responsible for what happens with their tools.
“I think it is likely an injured person might try to sue the creator of 3D printed guns sometime in the future. But combined, these principles [found in section 230] make it unlikely the creator or the websites hosting this information would be found liable” explained J.R. Skrabanek, Senior Counsel with the Snell Law Firm of Austin, TX (the same city Cody Wilson resides in) in an email to CoinJournal “unless they had some very specific knowledge of the identities of the people who might be harmed and the specific types of harm the product would cause.”
But outrage has a tendency to create new laws to tackle new problems. If someone sneaks a 3D printed gun onto an airplane or uses it in a mass shooting, there will be calls to put an end to them regardless if that is feasible or legal under current law. The same is true is one of Augur’s assassination contracts are fulfilled. And then how many people will want to create DApps in the open, if they know the users could twist it into something different and they would be held responsible?
And on the legal side of it, things are happening too. Earlier this year the government settled a court case with Wilson’s company, allowing him to post the plans online again after five years. But the victory was short lived. A federal judge suspended the settlement and after half a decade of fighting in the court system, the war continues.
This is about more than the 2nd amendment. It is also about the 1st amendment. All Defense Distributed is selling is information. That is all CAD files are, ultimately. And that is all computer code is as well, including the code that created bitcoin, Augur, and the hundreds of Dapps that are just around the technological corner.
By fighting Cody Wilson, and by potentially fighting “troublesome” DApps in the future, the government will not accomplish what they set out to. They can put Cody Wilson in jail if they want, right next to Ross Ulbricht. But there will be more Cody Wilsons in the future, just like there are more Ulbrichts today. Wilson isn’t the only one who knows how to make STL/CAD files. And if they ban 3D printed gun files, the next wave will just release them anonymously, in underground websites and darknet marketplaces and uncensorable ledgers like the blockchain. They won’t be interested in playing nice or doing things the “right way”. Their guns will be made to skirt legislation and no one will know who created them.
And the same goes for DApps. They can put creators in jail, if they want. But that will only force the next wave of creators to release their tools anonymously, and then the government will have no oversight at all.
Just like how the music industry shut down Napster and are now in the more unenviable position of going against Bittorrent, a battle they not only can’t win, but can’t even properly fight.
In the end, the government will find themselves in a much worse position, with no one to negotiate with and no one to arrest. They will have failed in preventing 3D printed guns and Dapps and darknet marketplaces. The only fruits of their labor, besides a handful of ruined lives, will be the destruction and elimination of the 1st amendment.
But then again, maybe they see that as a worthy goal.