On December 4, 2020, Keybase, an encrypted chat and file-sharing service, made a quiet change to its acceptable use guidelines: It would no longer permit users to post weapons content, including instructions for making 3D-printed guns on the platform.
Two months later, Keybase has yet to enforce the rule change. “We have informed [3D-printed gun groups] that we will discontinue hosting them in the coming days,” a spokesperson told The Trace, adding that the rule change was part of an effort to bring the company’s acceptable use guidelines in line with those followed by Zoom, which acquired Keybase last summer.
Assuming the company does indeed follow through, the most popular creators of 3D-printed firearms on the internet will be moving to a new home — again. As The Trace reported in 2019, 3D-printed gun groups found refuge on Keybase after a wave of bans from more widely used social media sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit. They took advantage of the platform’s encrypted messaging to crowdsource design tweaks and plot the group’s next projects, and its file-sharing capabilities to refine blueprints.
Membership boomed. Deterrence Dispensed, an informal group of online activists who make and distribute files to 3D-print guns, operates one of the largest “teams” on Keybase. Its membership increased from some 500 users in July 2019 to nearly 27,000 in January of this year. Roughly 11,000 members joined between October 5 and the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
In advance of the planned purge, Deterrence Dispensed migrated from Keybase on January 20, and deleted archives of the team’s chats, settling on a new self-hosted chat server using the open-source software Rocketcat. Fewer than a fifth of its members have joined, so far. Fosscad, the second-largest 3D-printed gun group on Keybase, with nearly 5,000 members, is still up and running, though it has plans to move elsewhere when the ban is enforced. Several other teams moved to a platform that resembles Keybase called Matrix.
“We suspected this was coming after Zoom acquired Keybase,” ivanthetroll, an informal leader of Detterrance Dispensed, wrote in the team’s primary chat channel on January 15. “It’s best we moved off a platform that we don’t host ourselves anyway — the coastal liberals who run zoom (sic) would take great pleasure at banning us without warning at Joe [Biden]’s request.” When reached by The Trace, ivanthetroll declined to comment for this story.
Despite the bans and censors, blueprints for 3D-printed guns remain widely available on the internet — part of a game of digital whack-a-mole that content moderators at some of the internet’s largest tech platforms have struggled to win. Previously banned by Twitter, ivanthetroll has returned under a new username and frequently shares links to download gun blueprints. A search on the site on February 1 returned dozens of links to download files from Deterrence Dispensed. The same links also appear on Facebook and Reddit, websites that took steps to remove gun blueprints in 2019. On the code-hosting site GitHub, which is owned by Microsoft, one repository contains blueprints for dozens of weapons including pistols, assault rifles, and even grenades. The company has no formal policy prohibiting weapons content, and did not respond to a request for comment.
The sites and software to which the groups have migrated add to a collection of censorship-free spaces that proliferated as larger social media companies have cracked down on content that they deem dangerous or hateful. Rocketchat and Matrix may provide permanent havens for some of the groups since they are not centrally controlled, but neither offer the file-sharing capabilities that distinguish Keybase.
Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University who has tracked the growth of 3D gun groups online, said the reason these groups like Keybase “is because it’s optimized for file storage.” That feature is particularly important for decentralized groups like Deterrence Dispensed, whose members design, share, and troubleshoot designs. “You can ensure that a file that you’re downloading hasn’t been changed.”
While the groups scramble to find a replacement for Keybase’s unique file system, their designs are still hosted on two websites where active moderation is not a concern. Defcad, a file-hosting platform run by the controversial 3D-printed gunmaker Defense Distributed, and LBRY, a blockchain-based file hosting protocol, have refused to moderate content. Deterrence Dispensed and AWCY, another popular 3D-printed gun group, host all of their finished blueprints on LBRY — for magazines, gun frames, bullets, silencers, braces, and more.