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Could HP’s use of Firmware Updates and Their New HP Wolf Security be Considered Extortion or Coercion?

Published on
June 12, 2023 at 12:00:00 PM PDT June 12, 2023 at 12:00:00 PM PDTth, June 12, 2023 at 12:00:00 PM PDT

Are printer companies like HP trying to protect your device, or are they just extorting more money from you, or getting their consumers to buy-in to their Wolf Pro Security through coercion?

Most states define extortion as the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force or threat of violence, property damage, harm to reputation, or unfavorable government action.

Similarly, coercion is the act or process of persuading someone forcefully to do something that they do not really want to do. Usually extortion is considered a felony in most states that result in class-action lawsuits. It’s likely these printer manufacturers don’t care about SEC fines or lawsuit settlements as it’s considered the “cost of doing business” since their consumable business unit is what drives most of their annual revenue.

Recent automatic firmware updates will only let you use the printer you bought from HP if you're using ink and laser toner cartridges you also bought from them. HP claims this is to “protect you from malware”, but is there really an epidemic of hackers trying to get into your printer through rogue ink or toner cartridges? One could argue that leaving “remote firmware update” active on your printer devices keeps the “door open” to such threats.

HP’s stance on the subject depends on who they are talking to. When they speak to consumers of their printers and printer cartridge supplies…it’s all doom and gloom and has a fear-filled undertone to scare consumers into buying their overly priced HP ink and toner cartridge supplies. When they speak to IT professionals however, buried deep within their own website they give instructions and advice regarding HP LaserJet Printer and Multifunction Devices: How to Disable Remote Firmware Upgrades. Their own recommendation to IT professionals is:

“Performing a Remote Firmware Update (RFU) is typically the responsibility of an administrator within an organization. For security reasons, RFU is an option that should only be enabled when new firmware is being loaded. RFU should be disabled at all other times.”

Did you catch that? They are admitting that firmware updates are only required when new firmware updates are installed [on your server or host computer]……and should be disabled at all other times. For the most part, once a new printer is in use and its drivers are downloaded to the server or the host computer it’s connected to….firmware updates are not necessary for the printer to function.

All new HP printers come with the RFU already enabled, as I’m sure they are betting on people not knowing that they even have the option to turn them off. You can even visit their website and under their “HP Customer Support – Software and Driver Downloads” you can find your printer by model and look at the firmware updates released to date and just what those RFU were for. Nine times out of ten the RFU’s are only for using their “Dynamic Security” to disable chips in non-HP chipped toner cartridges.

However, HP has designed two programs to combat their consumer’s choice in where they buy their ink and toner cartridges from. You may have heard by now of HP’s “Instant Ink” where you pay by the month based off your estimated monthly print volume and where some consumers are voicing their displeasure at feeling like they are being extorted by HP. The downside of this is if you unenroll from the program they deactivate your HP brand cartridges even though you paid for them. You can read more horror stories of the HP Instant Ink program or about their recent lawsuit settlement.

The other program is through their new line of “HP+ Printers” – which also requires consumers to use only Genuine HP brand cartridges. These new HP+ Printers they are pushing out to market essentially remove the “Right to Choose” away from their consumers completely. Consumers do have the option of purchasing the “standard” versions of these new printers…but at an increased cost of about 25-30% over what the HP+ printer models go for. Either way….HP wants you to pay.

To make matters worse for HP, there is also a brand new complaint against them issued to the Global Electronics Council (GEC) by the International Imaging Technology Council (I-ITC) charging HP with violating the GEC’s EPEAT eco-certification and greenwashing. To give a quick background, the GEC manages and sets the policies for the EPEAT ecolabel, which is the leading global Type 1 ecolabel covering products and services from the technology sector. 

It identifies more products from a broader range of manufacturers than any other comparable ecolabel for products such as computers and displays, imaging equipment, cell phones, network equipment, servers and televisions, etc. Type I ecolabels are important, as they are voluntary labels that signify overall environmental preference of a product or services based on life-cycle considerations that address multiple environmental criteria, which are based on transparent standards for environmental preferability, verified by a qualified organization.

According to Tricia Judge, the Executive Director of the I-ITC, manufacturers of EPEAT-registered devices are prohibited from designing their products to prevent the use of remanufactured cartridges. This is despite HP claiming its own product documentation, Dynamic Security and HP+ printers are designed to do precisely that. 

“Dynamic Security is HP’s name for printers that receive killer firmware updates capable of disabling perfectly functional third-party cartridges overnight, thereby forcing customers to buy HP’s overpriced cartridges instead. By claiming EPEAT registration on Dynamic Security printers, HP is simultaneously eliminating consumer choice and greenwashing its products”, said Tricia Judge.

It's no secret that printer manufacturers sell their printers at a loss and make up the difference by selling you expensive ink and laser toner cartridges. There is no functional reason to restrict the use of third-party ink and toner, it's purely about their profit margin. Instead of lying to customers and forcing them to pay more, companies should focus on making great products and treating customers fairly. Don't be held hostage by greedy business practices - it's bad for everyone. HP’s current tune regarding environmental sustainability has changed now too that ESG is such a hot topic with consumers and businesses these days. A decade ago, HP’s hardline was anything not manufactured by them was hot garbage. Now, they promote their recycled content and their recycling programs a little more loudly since more people are paying attention. But that’s certainly another article, for another day.