Another Ripple From the Huawei Ban: Scientific Peer Review

The Trump administration's decision to blacklist Chinese telecom giant Huawei is still rippling through the technology industry.

Earlier this month the US Department of Commerce added Huawei to a list of companies that must seek permission from the government to buy or acquire US technology. US chipmakers reportedly have cut off supplies of semiconductors to Huawei, and Google has withdrawn the company's licenses to use key Android apps such as Gmail and the Play Store app marketplace. Even the Japanese-owned, UK based chipmaker ARM reportedly severed ties with Huawei for fear of running afoul of regulators over technologies developed in ARM's US facilities. Now the restrictions are spilling over into academia.

IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is a professional association for technologists that publishes research, defines technology standards, and hosts conferences, among other activities. Huawei employees frequently contribute to the organization's publications and present at its conferences. But this week the Chinese technology news publication Pandaily published an email sent by IEEE to the editors of its publications, instructing them to stop using Huawei employees as peer reviewers for articles they're considering for publication. In other words, Huawei employees will no longer play a role in evaluating research before publication.

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“IEEE complies with US government regulations, which restrict the ability of the listed Huawei companies and their employees to participate in certain activities that are not generally open to the public,” IEEE confirmed in a statement. “This includes certain aspects of the publication peer review and editorial process.” But Huawei employees will still be allowed to access IEEE publications, attend IEEE events, and participate in the organization, including its governance.

Haixia "Alex" Zhang, a professor at the Institute of Microelectronics at Peking University, apparently resigned in protest from the editor board of two IEEE publications through an email widely shared on social media. Zhang wrote that IEEE's members believe the organization is international, not one that belongs solely to the US. Zhang did not respond to a request for comment.

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The law firm Akin Gump recently published an advisory warning companies outside the US that they too could be affected by the US restrictions if they provide Huawei with technology “developed, drawn, produced, or compiled” in America. That can include instructions or technical documents.

Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University, explains that some papers reviewed by IEEE could contain material covered by export controls. "IEEE would have to vet each article and send it to attorneys to determine whether to get a license from Commerce," he says. "That would be a very costly and somewhat risky proposition. So it is not unreasonable for them to simply cut Huawei employees out of the process completely."

IEEE's decision probably won't have a big impact on Huawei's bottom line. "Article reviewers get advance access to unpublished material, which they aren’t supposed to discuss or distribute," says chip industry analyst Linley Gwennap. "If Huawei reviewers are following these rules, such a ban would have no real business effect."

But the move underscores the breadth of the Trump administration's restrictions on Huawei. The technology industry used to be borderless. That's changing.

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