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Code Is Speech

Liberator Pistol

There is a fundamental principle at stake in the current controversy, ignorantly reported and heavily spun, over the recent U.S. State Department settlement with Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation in which Defense Distributed essentially won the case it had been pursuing since 2015, clearing it to distribute design files for the manufacture of firearms and components which can be used to produce them via additive manufacturing (“3D printing”).

This principle is much simpler and more fundamental than the cloud of confusion and ignorance spread like squid ink by the slavers who prefer a disarmed and dependent population at their mercy. It goes to the heart of free speech, and we’ve been here before.

The information required to produce an object via additive manufacturing is a computer file which gives instructions to the fabrication device to make the object. This file can be expressed in text and looks something like this:

        solid cube_corner
          facet normal 0.0 -1.0 0.0
            outer loop
              vertex 0.0 0.0 0.0
              vertex 1.0 0.0 0.0
              vertex 0.0 0.0 1.0

Now, this is hardly The Federalist Papers or Common Sense, but it is text which you could read on a soapbox on the corner to the bewilderment of everybody except for a few aspies furiously scribbling down the numbers to take back to their workshops, or publish in a newspaper or pamphlet.

A federal judge in the U.S. state of Washington has issued an order to block the distribution of computer files which the settlement permitted to be disseminated on 2018-08-01. (Lest one confuse these judicial tyrants with those chronicled in the seventh book of the Bible, recall Jerry Pournelle’s reminder to mentally replace “judge” with “lawyer in a dress”. This one was appointed by Bill Clinton.)

This is a fundamental attack on freedom of speech. It asserts that computer files and their dissemination via electronic means are not protected speech, and that the design of an object can be restricted in the same way the physical object can. These are ideas so stupid only an intellectual could believe them.

Now, I spent some years of my life building tools to create electronic designs and models of objects in the physical world. This technology has become central to almost everything we do, from fabrication of microcircuits to automobiles to the creation of imaginary worlds for entertainment. I am, as they say, invested in this.

This lawyer in a dress is saying that my speech, and your speech, in electronic form, distributed electronically, is not subject to the protections granted his, spoken in a courtroom or printed on paper. He is saying that such speech can be regulated based upon its content, which the founders of the republic that pays his generous salary (extracted by implicit threat at gunpoint from hairdressers and cab drivers who only want to be left alone) rejected in the very first amendment to their Constitution.

As I said, we’ve been here before. In the 1990s, when the fellow who appointed the lawyer in a dress was president and demonstrating by example his moral rectitude to the nation, the U.S. tried to declare that strong encryption, which would allow citizens to communicate without eavesdropping by the organs of U.S. state security, was a crime to disclose. Once again, they tried to declare computer code, in this case encryption algorithms and applications, “munitions” and subject to export controls. In the celebrated case of PGP, MIT Press published its source code as a book and challenged the U.S. government to prevent its publication. The U.S. government backed down (but did not entirely abandon its stance), and encryption is now generally available. (Want military-grade encryption entirely within your browser? Here you go!)

We won then. We must prevail now. If the slavers win the argument that computer files are not subject to the protection of physical speech or print, then everything you publish here, or send in E-mail, or distribute yourself will be subject to the kind of prior restraint this lawyer in a dress is trying to impose on Defense Distributed.

This is where it all comes together—the most fundamental of freedoms—speech, self defence, and the autonomy of the individual against the coercive collectivist state. If these things matter to you, consider joining Defense Distributed.


Cody R. Wilson at Fourmilab, 2013-01-30 I provided some of the early developmental-phase funding of Defense Distributed. To the right is a photo of Cody R. Wilson on his visit to Fourmilab in January of 2013. I am the “patron” described (in not-so-complimentary terms) in his superb 2016 book Come and Take It). In our conversation then Cody persuaded me to get into Bitcoin. That has repaid my support of Defense Distributed many, many times over.

This essay was originally published on on 2018-08-02. It was subsequently republished in The Libertarian Enterprise Issue 984 of 2018-08-05.

by John Walker
August, 2018