Downloadable Guns OR The Coming Ethical Crisis of File-Sharing

When the worlds first commercially available computer – the table sized UNIVAC I – was released the early 1950s, it would have been hard to envisage a world where machines exponentially more powerful would fit in our pockets. Half a century later they are so much a part of our everyday existence they are almost invisible. Yet the quietly growing industry of Additive Manufacturing – commonly known as 3D Printing – is running a parallel course. In time it promises to revolutionise healthcare and reinvent the industrial economy, but also represents a pandora’s box of technologies that will in time pose hard questions for the file-sharing community.

Presently 3D printers can produce extremely complex objects in durable plastics, metals such as titanium, and even sandstone. The next generation of this technology can be expected to much more detailed and made of even more exotic materials. But while printing jewellery and statuettes is interesting enough, it is also possible to print mechanical objects such as basic drones. In the near future, it will be possible to print the electronics as well. “We can print electronics onto it. You can give it intelligence. ” says Jeff DeGrange of Stratasys, who together with Optomec, have developed a process that allows electrical circuits to be printed straight into the 3D objects.

It seem inevitable that such devices will be hooked up to devices like Raspberry Pi or its successors, enthusing a new generation of hackers and bedroom AI engineers. It won’t be long before virals of home made robots and UAVs manufactured by 3D printers to emerge on YouTube with the ubiquity of Minecraft videos.  As hackers crowd-engineer open source drones, machine parts and AI, such devices will become extremely complicated, extremely smart, extremely fast. Within the last six months, we’ve already seeing the origins of this ecology develop. On the 23rd of January 2012, the Pirate bay announced a new category on their site to go alongside Movies and TV shows.

We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. Or as we decided to call them: Physibles. Data objects that are able (and feasible) to become physical. We believe that things like three dimensional printers, scanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare parts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years.

Presently, these items are novelties, such as Anonymous masks and a 3D bust of anti file-sharing lobbyist Chris Dodd. In the very near future, expect this to grow to cover all manner of exotic electronic creations.

“I just hope people won’t start downloading guns.” replied user clorf01 in the comments section of the announcement “I can just see it already, a sad depressed teen decides to end to end his life, but can’t find a quick or “easy” way to do it, but here’s [The Pirate Bay] with an unlimited plethora of firearms. It’s a hair raising thought…” It is a worry is shared by Marc Goodman, Global Security Advisor and Chair for Policy and Law at Singularity University, who is in possession of a 3D printed pistol complete with silencer.  If we soon have the ability to download machines and guns, how long until we can print, say, a weaponised drone? Or manufacture a fleet of them? With networked AI? Does this sound far fetched? As far fetched, perhaps, as a supercomputer that can fit in your pocket?.

If the last decade has taught us anything, it is that technology will complexify considerably faster than authorities capacity to regulate it. Indeed, at present the majority of cybercrimes go unpunished because the justice system does not have the mechanism to even gain evidence for prosecution. Bungled and shadowy attempts at internet regulation seem to be more focussed on protecting profits of legacy media companies rather than anyone’s safety, and most technology companies see stealth legislation like ACTA as misguided at best, and economically devastating at worst. Some event say that in the Internet’s current form, it is simply not possible to regulate file sharing. So what to do?

All it will take is the first shooting disaster brought about by a home-manufactured weapon to turn file-sharing from an intellectual property issue into one of national security. Then we can expect a slew of badly conceived and ham-fisted legislation to be rushed through along with unpleasant small print. Policy makers remain comically inept at conceptualising these issues, never mind bringing in intelligent and fair legislation that balances privacy with safety, so there would seem to be a predicament on the horizon.

Given both the technical unfeasibility and unpalatability of regulation, there seems to be only one solution; self regulation rooted in a shared ethical framework. Unfortunately, it is fair to say the file-sharing community has not been particularly strong in this area. The ethical policy of The Pirate Bay, for instance, can be summed up in one word; Meh. In 2008, they refused to take down magnet links to autopsy images of murdered children, despite repeated email requests from the parents. A moderator simply replied “What’s with this fucking nagging? No, no and again no!” While they ultimately apologised to the parents for the language of the response, they did not take down the magnet link. They simply shrugged, and did not consider the ethics of the issue as their problem. “I don’t think it’s our job to judge if something is ethical or unethical or what other people want to put out on the internet” said their spokesman Peter Sunde.

This amoral philosophy is shared by many in the community. In the realm of copyright infringement, while some people download because there are no viable legal alternative, others do so simply because they can, and dress it up with self-serving arguments that grow increasingly weak as time goes by. I have attended public debates about ACTA in which arguments like “Real artists don’t make art for money” have been floated about with a straight face. Jet-Setting founder of dubious online locker MegaUpload, Kim Dotcom, is regarded by many file-sharers as a folk hero and in a recent self-made, self-serving pop-video compares himself to Martin Luther King. However if his FBI Indictment is anything to go by, he is more akin to a robber-baron than a folk-hero, standing accused of racketeering and money laundering to fund a lavish lifestyle and amass a gargantuan personal fortune. Is this the best we can do for heroes?

Having an ethical framework is not the same as protecting an outdated and unfair copyright system, and we cannot fall for the fallacy of conflating the two. At some point, the pro-internet freedom, pro file-sharing community as a whole need to step up to their responsibilities, stop hiding behind the rhetoric of censorship and cartoonish anti-corporate tirades, and develop a moral compass that stands up to scrutiny. Failure to do so, may one day end in disaster.