The Fifth Circuit last week released an opinion upholding the District Court’s decision not to grant Defense Distributed’s motion for a preliminary injunction.  Defense Distributed had sought a preliminary injunction against enforcement by the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (“DDTC”) of its order prohibiting the company from posting on the Internet plans for printing guns with 3-D printers.

The majority opinion  did not really reach the merits of the case or whether DDTC had the right to prohibit U.S. citizens from uploading gun plans to the Internet. Rather it turned on a procedural issue: whether Defense Distributed or DDTC would be hurt more by an injunction. The majority opinion weighed that balance in favor of DDTC, arguing that a preliminary injunction would result in untold millions of foreigners printing crappy plastic guns whereas not granting the injunction would just mean that Defense Distributed had to sit on its hands until trial.

The dissenting opinion of Judge Jones, however, dove straight into the merits, arguing that DDTC’s theory of the case was fatally flawed because uploading things to the Internet is not an “export” within the meaning of the Arms Export Control Act. To summarize Judge Jones, “export” means sending stuff across a border for money. As a result, Defense Distributed could not be held to have engaged in an export as a result of “the domestic publication on the Internet, without charge and therefore without any ‘trade,’ of lawful, nonclassified, nonrestricted information.”

Judge Jones does not stop at the notion of mere access as an export, but zeroes in on the “across borders” criterion to take dead aim against “deemed exports.”

Although the majority opinion adopts the State Department’s litigating position that “export” refers only to publication on the Internet, where the information will inevitably be accessible to foreign actors, the warning letter to Defense Distributed cited the exact, far broader regulatory definition: “export” means “disclosing (including oral or visual disclosure) or transferring technical data to a foreign person, whether in the United States of abroad.” There is embedded ambiguity, and disturbing breadth, in the State Department’s discretion to prevent the dissemination (without an “export” license) of lawful, non-classified technical data to foreign persons within the U.S. The regulation on its face, as applied to Defense Distributed, goes far beyond the proper statutory definition of “export.”

Or, more succinctly, if it was a real export they wouldn’t have to call it a “deemed” export.

Judge Jones’s opinion is certainly grounded in common sense, something often lacking in export control. In the early days of my practice, I tried to explain to a former military officer who was CEO of a client that disclosing information to a foreign employee in the United States was an export. He paused for a moment and then, with the veins in his neck bulging and his cheeks flushed, he said “That is the dumbest [bad word] thing I’ve ever heard come out of the mouth of a lawyer” and promptly invited me to leave his office immediately.  I still think his assessment of “deemed exports” was dead on.

Copyright © 2016 Clif Burns. All Rights Reserved. 

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