HP backtracks on blocking third-party ink

HP has said it's sorry for failing to tell its customers why it blocked third-party ink, but defended its reasons for doing so.

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Image: HP

PC and printer maker HP Inc will reverse a firmware update that blocked non-HP ink cartridges on some of its printers, but said it would do it again to block counterfeit products.

In a blog post titled 'Dedicated to the best printing experience', HP Inc's chief operating office Jon Flaxman said the company was sorry for how it communicated a controversial update this month that caused OfficeJet printers to reject non-HP ink. However, he also defended its decision to do it.

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"As a new company, we are committed to transparency in all of our communications and when we fall short, we call ourselves out," wrote Flaxman.

"We updated a cartridge authentication procedure in select models of HP office inkjet printers to ensure the best consumer experience and protect them from counterfeit and third-party ink cartridges that do not contain an original HP security chip and that infringe on our IP," Flaxman wrote.

The update for HP OfficeJet, OfficeJet Pro, and OfficeJet Pro X printers included a "dynamic security feature that prevented some untested third-party cartridges that use cloned security chips from working, even if they had previously functioned".

Flaxman said affected customers will have an optional firmware update in two weeks that will remove the security feature.

The backdown follows a petition from rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) demanding HP reverse the block on third-party cartridges. The group criticized HP for dressing up an "anti-feature" as a security update. Doing so risked undermining customer confidence in future security updates and exposing them to greater security risks, said EFF's special advisor Cory Doctorow.

EFF's five demands included that HP apologize to customers, roll back the update, and disclose the effects of any future update. It also wanted HP to vow never to use a security update to deliver "anti-features", such as preventing non-HP ink cartridges, and not to use US copyright law to attack third-party ink makers.

However, besides the optional update, HP only committed to communicating why it may use its printers' security chip to block counterfeit cartridges. Indeed, customers can expect HP to implement similar blocks in future.

"We should have done a better job of communicating about the authentication procedure to customers, and we apologize," said Flaxman.

"We will continue to use security features to protect the quality of our customer experience, maintain the integrity of our printing systems, and protect our IP including authentication methods that may prevent some third-party supplies from working. However, we commit to improving our communication so that customers understand our concerns about cloned and counterfeit supplies," he added.

EFF welcomed the optional update; however, it didn't accept HP's reasons for blocking third-party ink.

"We remain troubled by the trend of companies using digital locks to break their own products' functionality, and then representing those locks as security features. These anti-features endanger internet security while making our products less useful," the group wrote in response to HP's blog.

EFF is still demanding HP promise not to conceal digital rights management technology in a security update.

"Customers should be able to buy an HP printer without fear that the company will later place artificial limits on the printer's use. It would be a security nightmare for customers to avoid installing security updates for fear of unwanted and unannounced feature changes.

"Even people who don't use Officejet printers should still be troubled by the possibility of thousands of printers running without security updates installed, leaving known vulnerabilities open to attack," the group said.

EFF also questioned how HP would inform users of the optional update. HP has opened a support page for the issue, but EFF argued that unless owners of affected printers have followed news about the issue, they probably don't why non-HP ink doesn't work, nor that it will be possible to restore it.

"All those customers should be able to use their printers free of artificial restrictions, not just the relatively few who have been closely following this story," said EFF.

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