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Trigger Warning: Why the 3D-Printed Gun Debate Matters to Crypto

Marc Hochstein is the managing editor of CoinDesk. The views expressed here are his own, so please don’t blame his colleagues.

The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday exclusively to our subscribers.


While it may seem only tangentially related to cryptocurrency, the fight in the U.S. over publication of software for 3D printed firearms bears close watching by the whole blockchain community.

The word “publication” should give you a hint why, as the case highlights freedom-of-speech issues that may resurface in future attempts by governments to regulate crypto and distributed networks.

More broadly, the groundswell of media hysteria and political grandstanding around this issue is a reminder of the type of resistance any game-changing technology is bound to meet.

Stepping back, last week a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Defense Distributed, a company founded by the provocateur and crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson. The order barred the Austin, Texas-based firm from posting computer-aided design (CAD) files online for weapons that can be manufactured at home with a 3D printer or a computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine.

Wilson had recently celebrated victory in a long-running fight with the federal government, which settled with his company and agreed to let it distribute the technical information, throwing in the towel on claims that doing so would violate munitions export rules.

This capitulation prompted gasps of outrage from the likes of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. Shortly thereafter, attorneys general from eight states and the District of Columbia sued to stop the settlement, claiming it violated administrative procedure law and states’ rights under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.

In response to that suit, the judge issued the TRO, which Defense Distributed abided by, refraining from posting the files. However, they are still available all over the internet.

Is code speech?

Wilson is a familiar figure in the crypto world, in part because of his work on Darkwallet, a privacy-enhancing bitcoin wallet, and also for his campaign to dismantle the Bitcoin Foundation during that organization’s heyday.

But the relevance of Defense Distributed’s current struggle to the blockchain world goes deeper than that coincidence.

“Winning this fight could prove crucial for bitcoin and other crypto projects,” Peter Todd, the perspicacious cryptography consultant, tweeted after the states intervened. “If you can’t post technical blueprints to guns, banning technical blueprints to crypto too doesn’t seem far-fetched.”

Indeed, beyond the arcane procedural questions in the states’ lawsuit, the fight arguably boils down to whether software is speech.

“Both cryptocurrency protocol software and AutoCAD files may be protected speech under the 1st Amendment,” said Peter Van Valkenburgh, the director of research at blockchain industry advocacy group Coin Center in Washington, D.C.

“Thus, in either case, a law that attempted to censor or put prior-approval/prior restraint upon the speakers of that speech would likely be found unconstitutional.”

However, the free-speech argument for code is not always a slam dunk in court, according to Aaron Wright, an associate clinical professor of law and director of the Blockchain Project at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

“There’s a notion in the crypto community that software is unimpeachably protected by the First Amendment. That’s simply not the case,” Wright said. “If someone develops and implements software that runs afoul of U.S. law, they could face liability.”

In their book “Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code,” Wright and co-author Primavera De Filippi note that courts in the U.S. have already denied First Amendment protections for one kind of software because it “had no purpose other than facilitating illegal gambling.”

Looking ahead, they add:

“If governments choose to regulate blockchain developers, some code may be protected by the First Amendment, while other code may not. For instance, decentralized e-commerce marketplaces used for the exchange of everyday items, but also potentially unlawful products … could receive First Amendment protection … because they facilitate both lawful and unlawful acts. Conversely, decentralized prediction markets and exchanges that facilitate the trading of binary options would likely be deemed to violate existing laws like the Commodities Exchange Act.”

Moral panics

Legal questions aside, disruptive technologies, both in the world of atoms and in the world of bits, run the risk of attracting a frightened and angry mob.

To Andrew Glidden, the head of legal research for Blockchain@BerkeleyLaw, a student club at the University of California Berkeley’s law school, the hoopla over 3D printed guns resembles the “moral panics we face about ‘evil internet money.'”

He points out that home manufacture of firearms has long been legal in the U.S. (provided they are not transferred to another person and are not fully plastic), and as mentioned, information about how to build the weapons is already in the public domain.

Compounding the silliness of the present controversy, Glidden went on, is the way some have conflated two different technologies Defense Distributed is involved in, thereby overstating the risks.

Defense Distributed’s 3D printed plastic pistol, known as the Liberator, is inexpensive to produce, and potentially undetectable (if the maker ignores the CYA instructions to add a small block of steel) but “largely useless,” less capable than a black powder musket and liable to explode in the user’s hand.

On the other hand, the company’s CNC-milled, metal firearms are “functional, but expensive and detectable,” Glidden noted. “The moral panic is premised on taking the Most Evil characteristics of each.”

Hence the similarity to the FUD you hear from time to time about bitcoin facilitating a terrorist attack.

“In either case, there’s a lawful activity, with a hypothetical (but not particularly warranted) possibility for abuse that drives the public to panic,” Glidden said.

None of this is to say these technologies are endangered. They are, after all, decentralized, and as observed in the Defense Distributed case, enjoining one actor hasn’t prevented the flow of information.

The prohibitionists almost certainly can’t stop innovation or adoption of either blockchains or home manufacturing altogether. But they might slow it down in some places and cause collateral damage.

At a minimum, they’re a nuisance. Be on guard.

3D-printed gun image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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Industrial Giant GE Eyes Blockchain in Fight Against 3D-Printing Fakes

Industrial conglomerate General Electric (GE) wants to use a blockchain to verify 3D-printed parts in its supply chain, according to a recently-published patent filing.

Published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on June 21 and submitted last December, the application outlines a method for integrating blockchains into additive manufacturing – commonly known as 3D printing – to create a database that validates and verifies the  manufacturing process.

In other words, the technology would enable the company to create a blockchain-based manufacturing history that can help with tracking and authenticating 3D-printed objects.

The invention would tackle challenges existing in the current systems for additive manufacturing, which “lack verification and validation systems for ensuring that objects produced by the process are appropriately certified,” according to the application.

Due to this issue, if a replacement part for an industrial asset is produced using an additive manufacturing process, anyone with access to a 3D printer could reproduce that part. As a result, end users can’t verify whether the replacement part “was produced using a correct build file, using correct manufacturing media, and on a properly configured additive manufacturing device.”

GE states in the filing:

“It would therefore be desirable to provide systems and methods for implementing a historical data record of an additive manufacturing process with verification and validation capabilities that may be integrated into additive manufacturing devices.”

The move is just the latest sign of interest in blockchain technology by the industrial behemoth. Last year, the USPTO released five patent applications, all filed in 2016, which each described a different blockchain application to aid in the streamlining of aircraft maintenance.

GE also announced in March that it had joined the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA), a blockchain consortium that aims to develop standards around the tech’s use in the cargo transport industry.

3D printer image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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3D Printing Could Be Blockchain's True Game-Changer

Michael J. Casey is chairman of CoinDesk’s advisory board and a senior advisor of blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative.

The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday exclusively to our subscribers.

casey, token economy

After multiple proofs of concept, pilots and early rollouts, supply chain management is emerging as the killer app for enterprise blockchain technology, the very first to be “going live” – to cite the theme of this year’s Consensus conference.

But while multiple blockchain projects worldwide are demonstrating how smart contracts, data sharing protocols and cryptographic traceability can unlock trade finance, improve risk management, streamline customs processing and boost transparency, the biggest change for global trade is yet to come.

That will be when the Internet of Things, 3D printing and other automating technologies finally free manufacturing from the constraints of geography. At that moment, blockchain technology could come into its own, enabling an entirely new paradigm of decentralized, on-demand production and forcing a realignment of global economic power.

Reaching this new paradigm requires advances in all these technologies. But just as importantly, it will require manufacturers to adopt a more open-minded approach toward optimizing the balance between competition and collaboration and toward the role that blockchains can play in finding that.

As of now, big manufacturing, shipping and trading companies tend to view supply chains from a proprietorial perspective. They talk about their supply chains as if they are a club that suppliers join only after pre-certification establishes a trusted relationship with the buyer.

Inevitably, these businesses are favoring permissioned blockchain systems, with the distributed ledger either managed by a single, centralized party such as a major retailer or producer or validated collectively by a consortium of those same pre-established suppliers. Permissioned blockchains reinforce the “clubbiness” of the shared enterprise.

But when additive manufacturing eventually makes it possible to rapidly respond to customized orders anywhere in the world by spinning up production in the customer’s neighborhood, manufacturers will need to quickly onboard 3D-printer providers – including many with which they have not established bonds of trust.

In that case, a permissioned blockchain could backfire, as the validators’ instinct could be to exercise their collective gatekeeping powers to protect their own market interests against those of the outsiders. Revenue opportunities would go wanting.

By contrast, enterprises that take a more open approach to business partnerships may find that a permissionless system gives them a competitive advantage over the permissioned supply chain clubs.

If 3D-printing machines can be uniquely identified with cryptographic primitives, and if their transactions, data emissions and overall performance can be logged to a registry that’s trustlessly notarized in a permissionless, open-access blockchain, then users of such a system could enjoy a very fluid onboarding process, making it much easier to respond to customer demand when it arises.

Brave new world

Clearly, this all depends upon significant technological improvements to make permissionless blockchains enormously more scalable – including the development of payment channels and interoperability protocols such as lightning and other “layer two” technologies.

It will also require standards for certifying in-built chips, so that the interconnected printing machines, sensors and other devices that will form these high-tech manufacturing networks can reliably provide the data upon which this system of decentralized trust will depend.

So for now, this scenario exists only in the imagination. But the thought experiment is useful, as it paints a dramatically different picture of the global economy, one that will raise a whole new set of challenges.

One of those was foreseen by an innovation team at precision parts manufacturer Moog Inc. when it conceived of its Veripart solution for 3D-printed parts. Specifically, Moog realized the need to ensure the integrity of the software files shared with different printing machines, to know that flaws haven’t been introduced into 3D-printed products, whether by hackers or human error.

It’s a problem that, as the Moog team recognized, also requires a blockchain-like system of distributed trust with which to track the development of the software code as it passes from one engineer to another.

If these changes occur, they would significantly alter the ownership structure of entire manufacturing industries. Labor-intensive factories and assembly lines would be a thing of the past, and there would be many fewer stages in the production chain from primary material extraction to finished product. Importantly, the intellectual property attached to the varying designs of highly customizable products would have an elevated importance.

One can foresee supply chains shifting away from today’s sequential, iterative processes of production – where goods shift downstream as payments go upstream – toward more of a teamwork-driven model. Manufacturing could be the result of a collaborative effort between various owners of different pieces of IP, each claiming a pre-agreed proportion of revenues from the end sale, paid out via a smart contract. Think of how contributors to a movie or music project are paid royalties and you get the idea.

(For more on blockchain technology’s role in this “demand chain” future, read a forthcoming essay by CoinDesk advisor Pindar Wong that will be published when Consensus begins on May 14.)

A new notion of labor

Whether this world comes to pass or not, a key element of this vision seems certain to do so: the further disintermediation of manual labor from manufacturing and the continued ascendancy of creative work. It’s a bleak outlook for those who expect to make a living from the former and portends even greater power for successful designers and owners of popular brands.

For a more equitable, harmonious and innovative society, we are going to need a dynamic model that subjects inventors to constant competition from a wide pool of newcomers with ever better designs.  That means reducing barriers to entry, which in turn means curtailing gatekeeping intermediaries’ power to block the innovative efforts of others.

Here, too, a decentralized architecture will matter.

As the global economy evolves, it will be important to encourage a disintermediated system of distributed trust in which people have control of their data and ideas and are able to trade them with each other on their own terms.

It’s an exciting future, but it could also go very wrong. A model based on the principles of open-source, open-access and permissionless innovation is the best way to get the balance right.

3D-printing spools image via Shutterstock.

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.