(The Atlantic | Aug. 24, 2018) In 1971, a slim volume filled with instructions detailing how to create explosives and other weapons proliferated across bookshelves. The Anarchist Cookbook was one ideological young American’s attempt to make a political statement; in this case, the author was registering his opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft letter he had received. The book set off an urgent and fearful debate. In a letter to a top official at the Justice Department, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote “of the inherent threat that distribution of the book poses to this country’s internal security.” But, he lamented, “the FBI has no control over material published through the mass media.”
“Yes, they can get into the wrong person’s hands, and, yes, they can be harmful.”
Five years ago, another ideological young American published another kind of how-to manual. In the 21st-century iteration of the story, the medium is the internet, not a book; and instead of half-baked plans to build ineffective bombs, there are blueprints that can be downloaded as code and used to create functional plastic guns from a 3-D printer. At the time the material was published, the State Department claimed that 3D-printed guns posed a direct threat to America’s national security. The State Department argued that the publication violated its arms-export controls, and sued to force the removal of the plans from the internet. The blueprints’ creator—Cody Wilson, an anarchist firearms enthusiast who enjoys trolling gun-control advocates and is based in Austin, Texas—begrudgingly took the plans off his website.
This spring, Donald Trump’s State Department changed course by settling Wilson’s case out of court and granting him permission to publish his plans. The settlement would have allowed the blueprints to be published online this month. But a federal judge in Washington put Wilson’s plan on hold after Democratic attorneys general in eight states (including New York and New Jersey) and Washington, D.C., brought a lawsuit claiming the State Department had acted inappropriately. On Tuesday, lawyers representing these eight states, the State Department, and Wilson met in court in Seattle, where the judge announced that he will decide by Monday whether the plans must remain offline. Beyond the specifics of the case, the courts are again grappling with a recurrent question: When does U.S. national security trump the free-speech rights of U.S. citizens? Most agree that the First and Second Amendments give Americans the right to download plans for 3-D-printed guns off the internet. What the judge must decide is whether those freedoms should be abridged by the ability of foreign terrorists to download those same plans — and then use the guns to attack the United States …
… But there was little to stop the plans being published, given both First Amendment free-speech protections and Second Amendment gun-ownership rights. In 2013, when Barack Obama’s State Department got involved, it became clear that this matter concerned national security, not domestic gun politics. “None of this has anything to do with any domestic control over anything,” said Kevin Wolf, a former Commerce Department official under Obama who worked on arms-export issues.
The foreign-policy interest here, a State Department spokesperson told me, was keeping the plans away from people in other countries who might pose a danger to America. “It seems like a no-brainer to me that, yes, they can get into the wrong person’s hands, and, yes, they can be harmful,” said William Banks, a Syracuse University law professor and national-security expert, in an interview.
Until June, the State Department—through the end of Obama’s term and the start of Trump’s—held a similar position. In 2015, a judge summarized the agency’s position: “The State Department is particularly concerned,” the judge wrote, that Wilson’s technology could be used “in an assassination,” to manufacture weapons by “terrorist groups, or guerrilla groups,” or “to compromise aviation security overseas … directed at U.S. persons.” Yet this year, the federal government changed course, with the State Department acceding that Wilson’s blueprints were legal under newly designed federal regulations …
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