Ethical Issues Regarding the Availability of Harmful Models for 3D Printing on Online Media

by rudmill on April 1, 2015 - 4:22pm

A 3D printer is a device that uses additive manufacturing, typically through a process of depositing heated polymer layer by layer in order to build 3D objects from a digital model file. In recent years, the development and proliferation of hobbyist and consumer grade additive manufacturing or 3D printing machines has opened up a whole world of possibilities. There are numerous off the shelf consumer grade 3D printers available as well as dozens of free do-it-yourself designs published online on websites such as However, as with most new technologies there is potential for misuse of this technology.

The International Business Times has an article titled: 3D Printing Risks: Not Just Plastic Guns, But Military Parts, Drugs And Chemical Weapons that presents numerous concerns this new technology raises. The article discusses issues such as the ability to circumvent background checks by printing guns at home, printing counterfeit parts such as for airplanes with the intent of sabotage, and the possibility of printing harmful chemicals such as cocaine or ricin in the future. However, the article goes on to qualify that “While a person might be able to someday print anthrax, or a bomb, or a batch of methamphetamine, you can already make those things with much lower-tech methods. You can find anthrax spores in soil if you look in the right place; pressure cookers were used to kill and maim at the Boston Marathon last month; and while cooking meth can be quite dangerous, it doesn’t require too many exotic ingredients beyond lye and Sudafed” (International Business Times). Similarly, although it is possible to 3D print a rudimentary firearm, it is perhaps easier and more effective to illegally obtain a firearm or to mill one from a commercially available “80% lower” (a process that Defense Distributed aims to radically simplify with their “Ghost Gunner”) or to create a more effective rudimentary weapon commonly referred to as a “zip gun” with more traditional manufacturing techniques.

The ethical dilemma I would like to explore now is: should we restrict access to plans that would allow people to build their own 3D printers or to 3D models that would enable individuals to print harmful ?  There has already been talk in the American government about legislating 3d printing technologies: “While individual politicians might say they’re focusing on the product and not on the manufacturing device, there are some rumblings in Washington of the possibility of registering 3-D printers and restricting the dissemination of blueprints. This month, the U.S. State Department asked Defense Distributed’s Wilson to take down his blueprints for the Liberator, on the grounds that it wants to see if the files comply with international arms-export regulations” (International Business Times).  Furthermore, commercial websites that host 3D models have begun to take down models pertaining to weapons. Shapeways has a provision in its content policy that prohibits any “Content that resembles weapons or weapon accessories” (Shapeways). Similarly, Thingiverse, a 3D model catalog operated by 3D printer manufacturer Makerbot Ind. “started culling gun-part blueprints from its Thingiverse catalog of user-uploaded designs” in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting (International Business Times). However, Terry Wohlers an industry consultant “has mixed feelings about 3-D printed gun parts, but he pointed out the plans are already out there online. It’s virtually impossible to put the digital genie back in the bottle.” (International Business Times). This statement seems completely accurate seeing as despite all the efforts to remove the Liberator and other related weapon models from the internet they are still easily available via torrent or p2p networks and easily found, often as a part of a package, on torrent search engines such as The Pirate Bay.

From a deontological point of view, everybody has a fundamental human right to share and receive knowledge and information as outlined in article 19 of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (United Nations). From this perspective, restricting access to plans for building a 3D printer or to any 3D model, no matter what it is for, constitutes censorship and violates the freedom of expression of others. 

From a teleological point of view, restricting access to certain information such as 3D models for weapons can result in a generally positive outcome. Setting aside the difficulties of regulating the information available on the internet, if it were possible to effectively prevent people from accessing 3D model files for things such as weapons and they were unable to make them on their own, then we could prevent people from 3D printing guns. By preventing people from printing weapons, firearms would be less accessible (although in certain countries real firearms are already easily available, for instance in the USA there are 90 guns per 100 residents) (Wikipedia). This might allow us to work towards the utilitarian summum bonum of maximizing pleasure/happiness by reducing the occurrence of violent crime.

In conclusion, we can see regulating information on the internet is near impossible and currently 3D printers do not introduce any revolutionary new capabilities. Nonetheless, the important ethical dilemma regarding whether or not we should restrict access to information that would facilitate the abuse of 3D printing technology is one that must be explored and hopefully resolved now. Doing so will ensure that we are prepared for the much more significant concerns that will arise with future iterations of this technology that could enable us to print using much stronger materials such as metals and construct chemicals at the atomic level.


Works Cited

"How to Make Vegetarian Chili." eHow. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2009.

“Number of guns per capita by country”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Mar. 2015. Web. Mar. 30 2015.

Palmer, Roxanne. “3D Printing Risks: Not Just Plastic Guns, But Military Parts, Drugs And Chemical Weapons”. International Business Tines. IBT Media Inc., May 24 2013. Web. Mar. 30 2015.

 “Shapeways Content Policy and Notice Takedown Procedure”. Shapeways. Shapeways Inc., n.d, Mar. 30 2015.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, n.d. Web. Mar. 30 2015.