If you were planning to ship a Huawei phone to America, you might be in for a surprise. This week, writers at PCMag tried to ship a Huawei P30 from a UK office to a US one, and were surprised to find it sent back a few days later. Since the sender had identified the phone down to the IMEI number, it was clear from the beginning that box contained a Huawei phone, but the package was actually shipped all the way from London to Indianapolis — from the UK’s Parcelforce to its US partner FedEx — until a legal issue emerged and the shipment was returned to the UK. According to the attached notice, the problem was a “US government issue with Huawei and China government.”
This is totally ridiculous. Our UK writer tried to send us his @HuaweiMobile P30 unit so I could check something - not a new phone, our existing phone, already held by our company, just being sent between offices - and THIS happened @FedEx pic.twitter.com/sOaebiqfN6— Sascha Segan (@saschasegan) June 21, 2019
Crucially, there wasn’t a specific law referenced; the company simply decided it would rather not take on the trouble of figuring out if this was kosher or not. Always thorough in the face of confusion, the PCMag folks checked with UPS, too, who said it would be happy to accept such a shipment. They checked with Huawei, too, who said it was a complete misinterpretation of the US orders.
On Saturday morning, FedEx released a statement acknowledging that it had made a mistake:
The package in question was mistakenly returned to the shipper, and we apologize for this operational error. As a global company that moves 15 million shipments each day, we are committed to compliance with all rules and regulations and minimizing impact to our customers as we adjust our operations to comply with a dynamic U.S. regulatory environment.
FedEx noted that it can “accept and transport all Huawei products except for any shipments to listed Huawei entities on the US Entity list.” But the company also directed blame elsewhere, saying “the return to sender label attached to the package in question was not generated by FedEx.”
It’s easy to see how FedEx could get confused, however. The past few months have seen a flurry of overlapping restrictions on Huawei, often for conflicting reasons. The company has been quietly blacklisted by US carriers for some time, but is now explicitly banned from US networks and from partnering with US tech companies. None of that explicitly bars a UK national shipping a duly purchased phone to the US. But as often happens when corporations enforce law, FedEx seems to be using company policy to stay as far away from the issue as possible.
The frustrating thing about this is that there isn’t any clear purpose to it. None of the executive orders against Huawei have been aimed at making it harder to ship phones into the US. With no US carrier supporting the company, it’s already hard to get a Huawei phone onto a US network, so an executive order closing that loophole wouldn’t be worth the trouble. And for most of the actions so far, the justification has either been avoiding network vulnerabilities (i.e. Huawei cell towers in US networks) or avoiding technology transfer (i.e. US technology in Huawei phones). But neither of those quite applies here.
As a result, the logic of blocking the shipment of an individual phone is hard to follow. If you did want to start selling Huawei phones in the US, shipping individual units would be a pretty bad way to do it. A trickle of non-retail phones is hardly a threat to America’s network integrity, and cutting them off has real negative consequences. If you’re an Android or web developer trying to see your programs run on one of Europe’s most popular phones, you’re simply out of luck.
Update June 22nd 10:30AM ET: The article has been updated with comment from FedEx.