Thursday, 27 February 2014

I Can Print You the World

Another article released today about the Customs Service and Customs Minister Maurice Williamson's concerns over 3D-printing has hit Twitter and attracted the same ridicule and criticisms as when Williamson discussed the issue on Radio New Zealand back in April 2013. In particular, this quote has made its way around the internet and has been used in many overseas publications as well:

"If people could print off ... sheets of Ecstasy tablets at the party they're at at that time, that just completely takes away our border protection role in its known sense."

The government does have a responsibility to at least try to be ahead of the curve and proactively identifying and dealing with these sorts of issues well before they occur. It's good that the Customs Service is thinking about it. The current suggested solution from the Customs Service is to restrict or ban the spread of digital designs/blueprints/schematics/recipes for 3D-printers, in a similar fashion to legislation on "objectionable material" such as child pornography. 

However, I think it is probably accurate to say that governments around the world are fighting a losing battle against digital information sharing. The Customs Service is probably not the best placed group of people to be blocking individual files from making their way into the country. It is just impossible for the government to constantly monitor every part of the internet in NZ (just ask China - they're certainly trying, and citizens still use workarounds every day to access "blocked" websites and avoid monitoring). It's even harder in a country that prides itself upon free speech and freedom to information. These design files would likely be classified as software with a similar level of intellectual property protections, and probably would be "licensed" to individuals and companies much like font files or Microsoft Office, but that doesn't stop rampant piracy. Design files for illicit goods like drugs probably won't have particularly enforceable licensing anyway.

Williamson and the Customs Service are not entirely wrong though, and much of the criticism is probably undeserved. It's not inconceivable that one day you might be able to buy a device that takes a set of chemical "inks" and use the correct set of chemical reactions to molecule-by-molecule create... anything, whether that's a gun, drugs, or a flying carpet car. It's been discussed in TED Talks and covered in numerous articles, and we have all the necessary technology already even if it is a little unwieldy and expensive - but then again, so were computers back in the day. If someone were to pour a decent amount of funding into the idea then it could be commercially available within a few years.

Looking at the problem from a different angle could present a better solution though. Rather than focusing on the digital "techy" side of it, look at the overall input problem. After all, the Customs Service is reasonably good at stopping bad physical things we don't want from getting into the country (certainly a lot better than they are at stopping digital things). So rather than trying to ban certain digital files, why not regulate the chemical inks? We regulate guns reasonably well in New Zealand, and if we think that the chemical inks can be just as dangerous then why not use a similar system? The options available to regulatory agencies still remain to be seen, as it depends on what the base chemicals are, but in physics and chemistry, you cannot create something out of nothing. If you want to print a gold bracelet, you've gotta get the gold from somewhere. If you want to print a computer processor, you've gotta get the silicon somewhere.

So if you want to print Ecstasy, you've still gotta get the base ingredients from somewhere, and I doubt we are anywhere near the stage where we can combine individual Carbon/Hydrogen/Nitrogen/Oxygen atoms together in meaningful financially viable quantities (those power bills would be eye-watering). More likely is that you will need chemicals like Formaldehyde, Safrole, etc., and chemists know what those ingredient combinations are. 

Regulate the market so that only those who are licensed to sell inks can do so. Require people to apply for licenses to buy the inks. Use a central computer system to keep track of purchases made by individuals between different stores. In the same way that asking for 200 packs of psuedoephedrine-based cold medication at a pharmacy is likely to raise eyebrows, buying the set of inks that will make Ecstasy would trigger some alarms. People could be buying that set of inks for a completely legitimate purpose - but they won't mind an officer popping by and just double checking what they intend to print. It won't completely stop people from printing drugs but it'll make it a lot harder. And ultimately the criminal penalties for being in possession of or selling Class A/B drugs are still deterrents.

Of course this only works to restrict things that require a set of chemical inks that can't be used to make other legitimate things. It would be difficult to restrict the creation of plastic guns through this mechanism when the same plastic "ink" can be used for any mind-boggling array of good things. With any new technology someone is going to come up with a creative way to use it for nefarious and evil purposes. But restricting the digital design files doesn't feel like the right way to stop or reduce that.

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