Printer maker Epson is under fire this month from activist groups after a software update prevented customers from using cheaper, third party ink cartridges. It’s just the latest salvo in a decades-long effort by printer manufacturers to block consumer choice, often by disguising printer downgrades as essential product improvements.
For several decades now printer manufacturers have lured consumers into an arguably-terrible deal: shell out a modest sum for a mediocre printer, then pay an arm and a leg for replacement printer cartridges that cost relatively-little to actually produce.
Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a booming market for discount cartridges and refillable alternatives. Just as unsurprisingly, major printer vendors quickly set about trying to kill this burgeoning market via all manner of lawsuits and dubious behavior.
Initially, companies like Lexmark filed all manner of unsuccessful copyright and patent lawsuits against third-party cartridge makers. When that didn’t work, hardware makers began cooking draconian restrictions into printers, ranging from unnecessary cartridge expiration dates to obnoxious DRM and firmware updates blocking the use of “unofficial” cartridges. As consumer disgust at this behavior has grown, printer makers have been forced to get more creative in their efforts to block consumer choice.
HP, for example, was widely lambasted back in 2016 when it deployed a “security update” that did little more than block the use of cheaper third-party ink cartridges. HP owners that dutifully installed the update suddenly found their printers wouldn’t work if they’d installed third-party cartridges, forcing them back into the arms of pricier, official HP cartridges.
Massive public backlash forced HP to issue a flimsy mea culpa and reverse course, but the industry doesn’t appear to have learned its lesson quite yet.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation now says that Epson has been engaged in the same behavior. The group says it recently learned that in late 2016 or early 2017, Epson issued a “poison pill” software update that effectively downgraded user printers to block third party cartridges, but disguised the software update as a meaningful improvement.
The EFF has subsequently sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, arguing that Epson’s lack of transparency can easily be seen as “misleading and deceptive” under Texas consumer protection laws. “When restricted to Epson’s own cartridges, customers must pay Epson’s higher prices, while losing the added convenience of third party alternatives, such as refillable cartridges and continuous ink supply systems,” the complaint notes. “This artificial restriction of third party ink options also suppresses a competitive ink market and has reportedly caused some manufacturers of refillable cartridges and continuous ink supply systems to exit the market.” Epson did not immediately return a request for comment.
Activist, author, and EFF member Cory Doctorow tells Motherboard that Epson customers in other states that were burned by the update should contact the organization. That feedback will then be used as the backbone for additional complaints to other state AGs.
"Inkjet printers are the trailblazers of terrible technology business-models, patient zero in an epidemic of insisting that we all arrange our affairs to benefit corporate shareholders, at our own expense,” Doctorow told me via email.
Doctorow notes that not only is this kind of behavior sleazy, it undermines security by eroding consumer faith in the software update process. Especially given that some printers can be easily compromised and used as an attack vector into the rest of the home network. “By abusing the updating mechanism, Epson is poisoning the security well for all of us: when Epson teaches people not to update their devices, they put us all at risk from botnets,
ransomware epidemics, denial of service, cyber-voyeurism and the million horrors of contemporary internet security,” Doctorow said.
“Infosec may be a dumpster-fire, but that doesn't mean Epson should pour gasoline on it," he added.