Counterfeit designer goods
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Online fakes, EV sales surge, Google dilemma and more: best of the week’s news

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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Counterfeit goods clampdown moves to social media

A government-backed scheme to tackle the trade in counterfeit goods is being extended to social media. The trade in counterfeit goods is – according to Forbes – the world’s largest criminal enterprise. Counterfeit goods certainly don’t cause as much direct human harm as drugs, gambling or sex trafficking but they are estimated to cost millions of jobs every year.

Given this, I wholeheartedly support this modest attempt to prevent some Facebook groups from allowing the sale of counterfeit goods. According to this scheme, the administrators of buy-and-sell Facebook groups will be able to slap a ‘Real Deal’ sticker on their group if they agree to prevent the sale of counterfeit goods there. It’s uncontroversial for me to say, however, that the introduction of a Facebook sticker is not going to knock much of a dent in the world’s most popular criminal activity.

Part of the problem with discouraging counterfeit sales is that it is hard to know what you’re getting online and most people can’t be expected to take time to do thorough research. There’s partially the problem of ignorance; I once bought a peachy cat-collar blouse online only to find months later that it was a perfect replica of a Miss Patina design. There’s also the issue of sellers taking original product images and marketing counterfeit goods with those images, which is particularly common in the fashion and beauty sectors. And then there’s the widespread theft of original art to use on clothing and other items – and this is not just a problem affecting large businesses and wealthy designers. A few years ago I tipped off a greetings card artist whose watercolour paintings were being printed on cheap Chinese t-shirts without his knowledge. He messaged one online seller requesting that the product was taken down. There were, quite literally, hundreds of sellers on a single site shifting these t-shirts and he stood no chance of putting a stop to it.

This is not to even begin to describe the world of organised crime that profits from counterfeit products: this trade has been shown to benefit people smugglers, drug gangs and even terrorist groups.

What’s the solution? Buyers could reverse image-search the products they are considering to see if they were ripped off from original designs, or when buying branded products from a third party they could check the brand’s web site for a list of authorised sellers. Blockchain fans may suggest that this technology could be used to create transparent supply chains, but who knows how long it’ll take for a significant fraction of sellers to adopt this (if ever). Until then, here a good rule to bear in mind: if the product is cheap, there’ll be a good reason for that.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Electric vehicle sales surge to record high

In August, electric vehicle sales in the UK reached a record high – one in every 12 new car registrations were EVs. I almost crashed my car because I was admiring a Tesla. So I’m not sure if I’m going to be a hazard on the roads now. Damn you, Tesla. Also, I have instant admiration for these people who own high-quality EVs, when I think they’re probably trying to do their bit to reduce their carbon footprint. But then I think, well the ‘fuel’ the car needs is cheap, or even free, and they get to drive around with this sort of ‘Mother Earth’ look about them. Plus their car is super luxurious, and fast as hell, so they get to be in this exclusive club of sorts.

Sometimes I feel my admiration turn into something more sinister if I think about it too much. Are these drivers actually douches? Like, do they want people to look and be saying: “Wow, they are so amazing, look what they’re doing to save the planet, yo!” I have to bat those negative feelings away and think, well, they’re better than all the other supercar owners that run on fuel. I will just continue to hate on them instead.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Killer robots, Trump’s social beef, carbon beavers and more: best of the week’s news

As promised in one of my picks of last week’s news (see link above), here’s a quick update on my so-far-still-futile attempts to persuade Google to remove links to a video interview that no longer exists, but which keeps popping up after a routine search of my name. Having failed to contact the internet giant by phone or online, I did visit its impressive new London HQ near King’s Cross station, but was unable to progress further than reception. A young receptionist was suitably smiley and welcoming, yet her only response to all my queries was, “I cannot disclose this kind of information”. She kept repeating it often enough for me to begin seriously thinking that I was dealing with the latest VR prototype of the “Hey, Google” electronic personal assistant of the type that lives in my lounge room and occasionally advises me on weather forecasts and train timetables. Her lovely Irish accent, however, was a clear indication that she was, most probably, human.

In the end, the receptionist agreed to pass my queries on to “somebody in the security department”. “They will get in touch with you,” she smiled. When will that be? “I cannot disclose this kind of information.”

At that point, I had to say that if I didn’t hear from them within a week, I’d have to take further steps. “Like what?” the receptionist stopped smiling and even looked worried for a fraction of a second. “I don’t know. [I didn’t] I’ll reserve the right to say in my blog or elsewhere that I haven’t heard from you.” The receptionist was visibly relieved. She smiled again and wished me a nice day.

Nothing at all has happened since then, other than an email from a sympathetic reader who wrote: “I have found in the past that the best approach to a problem like this is to have an ‘eye to eye’ discussion with a member of the company.” I totally agree and will keep you updated on the progress (or lack of it).

The Social Not-work: 44 per cent of young US Facebook users delete app

Good news! I can only hope that the remaining 56 per cent will follow their example and delete their apps, too.

Elizabeth line opening date delayed by nearly a year

A high-speed rail link being delayed before it even opened. Can it happen in any other country but Britain?

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Parental concern over children’s relationship with tech revealed by surveys

Home Secretary demands tech firms do more to fight online paedophiles

Two sides of the same ‘kids today’ coin. Yes, children should be using smartphones less. Yes, they should be playing outside more and invariably love doing so when finally wrestled away from their electronic devices. Yes, technology is wonderfully empowering and enabling, boosting education and other opportunities that might otherwise have been denied them decades ago. Yes, paedophiles are always finding new and disturbing ways in which to target vulnerable children. Overall, I believe the digital-native generation is growing up tech-savvy but not naive - they appreciate the possibilities but are aware of the pitfalls, both socially and psychologically. They know there’s a big wide world out there - and technology frequently enables them to access it, interact with it and enjoy it in ways that were unheard of 30, 20, even 10 years ago. This is a good thing. Certainly, it’s a parent’s job - duty, obligation, ingrained instinct - to be concerned about their offspring, but the world isn’t such a terrible place, no more so now than it ever was. Let the next generation enjoy it in their own way.

Electric vehicle sales surge to record high

I would love to buy an electric car, for the environmental reasons and for the low running costs, but I’m still waiting for the prices to surge to a record low. The cynic in me occasionally wonders if car companies are keeping the prices of electric cars artificially higher than their petrol and diesel equivalents in order to eke out a few more years from the outgoing technologies. At least by 2022 - when either I expect my current car will finally have given up the ghost or, if it’s still running, I’ll bequeath it to my 18-year-old as their first car - the prices of new electric models should be more affordable.

Android smartphones collect ten times more data than iOS phones, study reveals

As if I needed another reason not to even consider switching. 

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Engineering profession crowns list of jobs for top 100 CEOs

News that engineering is the best represented discipline among top CEOs in the UK and USA should provide a great propaganda tool for attempts to persuade more young people to stick with science and technology subjects at school. Studying engineering – as many in the sector will already know – provides a solid grounding in the skills that make a good company leader. And chief execs enjoy the sort of salaries that surveys consistently show are a significant factor in determining young people’s career choices.

The other side of this double-edged sword, though, is the question of how much actual engineering these big earners do in their working lives. The teenager who’s really passionate about science or tech and how it’s used to improve people’s lives will be bound to wonder whether getting on in the profession means gradually turning into a ‘suit’ who rarely gets their hands dirty with actual product development.

By all means trumpet the fact that A-level physics, for example, can be a step on the path to a six or even seven-figure salary. But remember that for many young people money isn’t everything and make sure they’re aware of the difference an engineering mindset can make, not just in the boardroom but throughout a business.

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