3D printed guns, underground markets, bomb manuals: police crackdown continues

Europol has now turned its attention to freely-available bomb guides published online.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Law enforcement continues to tackle information online considered to be dangerous, with bomb manuals the subject of a new operation. 

As internet access shifted from a luxury made possible through dial-up to something akin to a human right in many countries, the web became a catalyst for new, innovative business models, e-commerce, new means of communication, and a critical channel for education – especially useful during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. 

However, when it comes to education and e-commerce, law enforcement worldwide has taken different stances on what is considered allowable, and some topics, guides, and trading posts become the subjects of investigations and, in some cases, seizures or takedowns. 

Underground marketplaces, including AlphaBay, Silk Road, DarkMarket, and more recently, CanadianHQ have been shut down by the police. These platforms were used to sell everything from narcotics to weapons and malware. 

The debate surrounding the free flow of information online came to a head years ago due to Defense Distributed, created by Cody Wilson. The founder's website offered blueprints for 3D-printed guns in the public domain, allowing users to 'print' their own at home – but US court orders made under international gun trafficking laws were imposed to try and stop the distribution of the CAD files. 

Read on: Guns are already on UK streets. 3D printing could make things far worse

Back in Europe, bomb manuals are now a hot topic for law enforcement. On February 1, Europol brought together agencies from France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the UK under a "Referral Action Day" to wipe out dangerous content online.

Specifically, Europol says that "content on explosive chemical precursors" – in other words, instruction manuals for the creation of explosives – was targeted under an anti-terrorism action. 

The agency says that this content was "being shared among terrorist supporting networks, including jihadist, right-wing and left-wing terrorist networks."

In total, 563 pieces of content on 106 websites were the subject of a referral for voluntary removal by online service providers. The files included manuals and tutorials on how to make bombs using precursors as well as instructions on "how to prepare and carry out terrorist attacks," Europol claims. 

The content may become a subject of the European platform for takedown of illegal content online/Plateforme Européenne de Retraits de Contenus illegaux sur Internet (PERCI) project, a platform in Europol's roadmap (.PDF) that could eventually shift takedowns from a voluntary state to one that is forced – and potentially as soon as in the coming months, thereby increasing the power of law enforcement to tackle online content. 

"This platform is a technical solution built by Europol and managed by the EU IRU to facilitate the implementation of the new regulation," Europol says. "Before this, the process to take down terrorist content online was entirely voluntary on the part of the tech companies."

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