My Printer Is Extorting Me
Subscriptions such as HP’s Instant Ink challenge what it means to own our devices.
The first rule of at-home printers is that you do not need a printer until you do, and then you need it desperately. The second rule is that when you plug the printer in, either it will work frictionlessly for a decade, or it will immediately and frequently fail in novel, even impressive ways, ultimately causing the purchase to haunt you like a malevolent spirit. So rich is the history of printer dysfunction that its foibles became a cliché in the early days of personal computing.
After years of holding out, my family finally succumbed to a pandemic inkjet purchase. (Like many, we were doing a lot of online shopping in 2020, which meant a lot of return labels.) I girded my loins for the agony of paper jams, phantom spooler errors, and the dreaded utterance “Driver not found.” What I did not expect, however, was for my printer to shake me down like a loan shark.
The trouble started with a label for a package. My printer was unresponsive. Then I discovered an error message on my computer indicating that my HP OfficeJet Pro had been remotely disabled by the company. When I logged on to HP’s website, I learned why: The credit card I had used to sign up for HP’s Instant Ink cartridge-refill program had expired, and the company had effectively bricked my device in response.
For those not trapped in this devil’s bargain, Instant Ink is a monthly subscription program that purports to monitor one’s printer usage and ink levels and automatically send new cartridges when they run low. The name is misleading, because the monthly fee is not for the ink itself but for the number of pages printed. (The recommended household plan is $5.99 a month for 100 pages). Like others, I signed up in haste during the printer-setup process, only slightly aware of what I was purchasing. Getting ink delivered when I need it sounded convenient enough to me, a man so thoroughly coddled by one-click e-commerce that the frontal lobes of my brain likely resemble cottage cheese. The monthly fee is incurred whether you print or not, and the ink cartridges occupy some liminal ownership space. You possess them, but you are, in essence, renting both them and your machine while you’re enrolled in the program.
I’ve struggled in subsequent conversations with friends and family to adequately convey the level and intensity of entitled fury I felt when I realized all of this. Here was a piece of technology that I had paid more than $200 for, stocked with full ink cartridges. My printer, gently used, was sitting on my desk in perfect working order but rendered useless by Hewlett-Packard, a tech corporation with a $28 billion market cap at the time of writing, because I had failed to make a monthly payment for a service intended to deliver new printer cartridges that I did not yet need. Indignant, and making grotesque, frustrated noises that I now understand to be hereditary Warzel responses to printer problems, I declared to nobody in particular that I was being extorted by my printer.
I am sheepish to air this grievance aloud, lest it be seen as an abuse of my venerable platform. I am an adult of somewhat sound mind and have the ability to read contracts: I did this to myself. But my printer’s shakedown is just one example of how digital subscriptions have permeated physical tech so thoroughly that they are blurring the lines of ownership. Even if I paid for it, can I really say that I own my printer if HP can flip a switch and make it inert?
“What HP is doing is remarkably bad and deeply user hostile,” the writer and activist Cory Doctorow told me recently. Doctorow has written extensively about digital-rights management across printer brands. For him, prosaic printer issues like mine help people understand digital rights and the ways that companies make devices that resist user modification. “The battle for the soul of digital freedom [is] taking place inside your printer,” he argues. It’s not just about the surveillance, or the egregious markups on ink and the efforts to stop third parties from undercutting the inkjet-cartridge market, he said. It’s about the way that consumers are losing control over things they’ve already paid for.
One of his favorite examples of this is when Google bricked a bunch of sensors after shutting down a service it had acquired. Then there’s Tesla, which frequently issues software updates to owners’ vehicles, sometimes dramatically altering a car’s functionality. In 2017, when Hurricane Irma threatened Florida, the company pushed an update that temporarily increased battery life for owners of vehicles within reach of the storm. Tesla was praised at the time, but people like Doctorow saw the event as an example of the power that tech companies have over customers—the carmaker simply lifted an arbitrary software restriction on a physical battery that was otherwise used to create two different price points for consumers. “App stores powering our devices are convenient, and subscriptions can work great when you have a benevolent dictator, but what happens if they decide to turn the screws on you or increase the prices and your car stops working?” he said. “You have no remedies then.”
I can report that corners of the information superhighway are teeming with individuals who are incandescently furious about HP’s Instant Ink program. Together, our networked gripes form a complex harmony of resentment—a “Hallelujah Chorus” of bemoaning. There are tales of woe across HP’s customer-support site, in Reddit threads, and on Twitter. A pending class-action lawsuit in California alleges that the Instant Ink program has “significant catches” and does not deliver new cartridges on time or allow those enrolled to use cartridges purchased outside the subscription service, rendering the consumer frequently unable to print. Parker Truax, a spokesperson for HP, told me, “Instant Ink cartridges will continue working until the end of the current billing cycle in which [a customer cancels]. To continue printing after they discontinue their Instant Ink subscription and their billing cycle ends, they can purchase and use HP original Standard or XL cartridges.”
The problems can extend beyond artificial limitations. Skip Weisman, who owns his own consulting business in Poughkeepsie, New York, told me that HP Instant Ink would not stop sending him inkjet cartridges. Armed with well over a year’s supply, Weissman canceled his subscription. “It’s called Instant Ink—nobody told me that if I canceled, then all those cartridges would stop working,” he said. But they did. “It just feels so manipulative. I guess this is our future, where your printer ink spies on you. It’s bleak.”
Although frustrated customers routinely call it one, Instant Ink is not a scam per se. It’s just an aggressive, user-hostile business model. Doctorow argues that HP is following in the footsteps of casinos and razor manufacturers, which offer deals (comped hotel rooms and cheap shavers) in order to hook a consumer into a more lucrative financial transaction once they’re inside. Printer ink is expensive because ink is naturally costly but also because pricey cartridges help companies recoup the money they lose selling cheap hardware. “Think of the original price tag of a printer more like a down payment,” one printer-industry expert told Consumer Reports in 2018. For years, companies have sold the machines at a discount, but programs such as Instant Ink, which use technology to monitor cartridges—and disable machines—feel like an especially predatory step.
Even if you aren’t trapped in Ink Hell, the template of this story ought to feel unsettlingly familiar. Most everyone is subject to the walled gardens and restrictions imposed by digital-rights-management practices. If you’ve ever struggled to access a purchased movie, book, or song from Apple or Amazon, you know the feeling. Or maybe you’re a gamer who has long been frustrated over single-player games that require the internet to play. The problem isn’t merely that people are nostalgic for the days of CDs and DVDs and static updates—it’s that much of the convenience promised by our internet-connected tools has the secondary effect of stripping away small pieces of our agency and leaving us more beholden to companies seeking bigger margins.
Josh Kruger, a writer in Philadelphia who is also embroiled in a dysfunctional relationship with Instant Ink, cites the program as proof that we are “living on the internet of shit” and entrapped by subscriptions. Like me, Kruger is abashed by his anger but feels taken for a ride with a printer he essentially only rents. “I paid for this machine, and it is galling that the company can continue to tell me what I can do with it,” Kruger told me. “As a dumb American who owns the device, I should be able to use blueberry juice to get this thing to print if I want.”
That my personal rage circus revolves around a printer—a profoundly unsexy piece of machinery that many use to complete mundane life tasks such as printing out a passport form or a shipping label—is an added twist of the knife. But this is precisely the kind of second-order problem that people overlook. Like me, they pay little attention during the sign-up process and, like Weisman and Kruger, continue to pay while feeling fleeced, because doing so is easier than an alternative. That it feels so blatantly extractive is a reason to seethe but also a reason for complacency. Although the execution is modern, there is something timeless about feeling powerless at the hands of an enormous corporation—so much so that many of us just accept it.
“My entire life, my printers have always broken,” Kruger said. “So it fits that the first one that hasn’t broken has also decided to hold me hostage.”