Epson 'Security Update' Bricks Third-Party Ink Refills, Opens Up Possibility Of A Competitive Trades Investigation
from the nice-work,-jackasses dept
It’s no secret the printer business relies on hefty ink refill markups. The printers are disposable, often cheaper than the ink they come packaged with. But customers aren’t usually willing to toss out a printer when it runs out of ink, even if refilling it costs more than replacing it.
And good for them! I mean, at least in an environmental sense. Let’s not toss a bunch more non-decomposables into the nearest landfill the moment they refuse do anything until their inkwells are filled. But this does nothing for consumers, forcing them to become unwilling adherents to the sunk cost fallacy, especially after they’ve paid for a couple of ink refills.
Printer companies know their system is ripoff. They know their customers know it’s a ripoff. That’s why they engage in shady tactics to ensure this steady stream of revenue doesn’t dry up. For years, third parties have offered compatible ink refills. And for years, printer companies have been lying to customers to lock these competitors out of the market.
A couple of years back, HP pushed out a firmware update that made it impossible to use third-party refills. It didn’t tell customers the update would do this. It just sent out the DRMbomb and triggered it remotely, saying things about “security” and “protecting customers,” even as it eliminated their refill options.
Now, Epson has been caught doing the same thing. Cory Doctorow, writing for the EFF, says an EFF fan spotted the firmware update’s refill-bricking capabilities.
[I]n late 2016 or early 2017, Epson started sending deceptive updates to many of its printers. Just like HP, Epson disguised these updates as routine software improvements, when really they were poison pills, designed to downgrade printers so they could only work with Epson’s expensive ink systems.
EFF found out about this thanks to an eagle-eyed supporter in Texas, and we’ve taken the step of alerting the Texas Attorney General’s office about the many Texas statutes Epson’s behavior may violate. If you’re in another state and had a similar experience with your Epson printer, please get in touch.
The last touch is nice. This isn’t just a warning about printer company tactics. It’s an actual complaint, made to a government authority, about deceptive tactics being deployed by printer companies.
The problem is deeper than simply screwing customers out of cheaper ink options. Sending out feature-crippling firmware under the guise of “security updates” just teaches customers to distrust updates. And this is something consumers can’t afford. The NSA-powered ransomware deployed by malicious hackers targeted unpatched hardware and software. When a company tells you it’s making its product more secure, but is really doing nothing more than making your purchased product more worthless, it encourages customers to steer clear of recommended updates, even if those might patch vulnerabilities that could be exploited by criminals and state-sponsored hackers.
Then there’s the part the Texas AG might be more concerned with: the artificial restriction of competition through deceptively-portrayed firmware updates. There may be violations of actual laws at play here, both in the deception and the anti-competitive practices. Violating the customers’ trust may result in reputational damage. An investigation into Epson’s business practices — as is encouraged by the EFF’s letter [PDF] — may result in the loss of something companies find far more valuable than the trust of their customers: actual money.