“Since its inception, Coursera, the education company that offers massive open online courses (MOOCs) to 6.3 million users in 190 different countries, has committed publicly — and repeatedly — to delivering free education to all,” Forbes reporter Claire Zilmman wrote last week. “The U.S. Department of State, however, has other plans in mind, and has forced the site to cut off access to students in sanctioned countries.”
A message posted to the Coursera site on January 28, 2014 noted that, despite its core mission to provide “access to education for everyone,” it was recently determined that “[c]ertain United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.” As a result, ” Under the law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries.”
Once in place, the blocking of IP addresses from the sanctioned countries resulted in an error message to students attempting to access their courses. It reads:
Our system indicates that you are attempting to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subject to U.S. economic and trade sanctions. In order for Coursera to comply with U.S. export controls, we cannot allow you access to the site.
On January 29, 2014, writer and photographer Joey Ayoub, who was following a Coursera class called “Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World,” was prevented from logging into the site. He subsequently received an email from the course’s instructor, law professor Dr. Ebrahim Afsah from the University of Copenhagen, decrying sanction restrictions, which he then posted on his Hummus For Thought blog. Ayoub has allowed Muftah to republish the message here:
I write this email under protest and with a considerable degree of anger and sadness. Few things illustrate the bone-headedness, short-sightedness, and sheer chauvinism of the political structure of the United States better than the extent to which its ideologues are willing to go to score cheap domestic political points with narrow interests in the pursuit of a sanctions regime that has clearly run its course.
You might remember the Apple ad from a few years back, in which the company proudly announced that their machines were now so powerful that they fell under export restrictions: “For the first time in history a personal computer has been classified as a weapon by the US government …”
Well, that was a tongue in cheek quip at their Wintel competitors, but a few years after that same company decided that also an iPad apparently could now a weapon, in a rather cowardly anticipatory cow-tow to an ever expanding and aggressive sanctions regime, when they stopped selling any of their products to anyone who happened to SPEAK Persian in their stores (the company has since lifted that idiotic policy):
But you will now be interested to hear that also my course (and anything else Coursera offers) has been classified, if not a weapon that could be misused, then at least a “service” and as such must not fall into the hands of anybody happening to live in the countries that the United States government doesn’t like. I have thus been informed that my students in Cuba, Syria, Sudan and my homeland will no longer be able to access this course. I leave it to you to ponder whether this course is indeed a weapon and if so against what and what possible benefit the average American citizen could possibly derive from restricting access to it.
Let me reiterate that I am appalled at this decision. Please note that no-one at Coursera likely had a choice in this matter!
At any rate, rest assured that these are not the values of the University of Copenhagen, of its Faculty of Law, and most assuredly not mine!
Let me end on a personal note: as a recipient of a McCloy Scholarship created to foster trans-Atlantic friendship and as someone who spent some of his most formative years in the United States, I have to admit that I am worried about the path this country is descending to. Blocking teaching (and medicine) from people whose government one doesn’t like is a fallback into the darkest hours of the last century. As my teacher at MIT, Prof. Stephen Van Evera would have told the people responsible for this: your mothers would not be proud of you today.
Prof. Dr. Ebrahim Afsah
Faculty of Law
University of Copenhagen
PS: Below an excerpt of the communication I received from Coursera; I know from previous engagements that there is absolutely nothing they can do in the current legal climate in the United States:
“As some of you already know, certain U.S. export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries (Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria). The interpretation of the export control regulations in the context of MOOCs has been ambiguous up until now, and we had been operating under one interpretation of the law. Last week, Coursera received definitive guidance indicating that access to the course experience is considered a service, and all services are highly restricted by export controls.
In particular, the notion of “services” includes offering access to human grading of quizzes and assessments, peer-graded homework, and discussion forums. Regrettably, Coursera must therefore cease offering MOOC access to users in certain sanctioned countries in order to ensure compliance with these U.S. laws and to avoid serious legal ramifications.”
PPS: I don’t think it is very constructive to voice your opposition to Coursera, as they can’t do anything about it anyway. If you feel you must voice your discontent, direct it at the political representatives who are responsible for this situation, i.e. your congressman or -woman if you are a US citizen or the local US representation if you are not.
For its part, Coursera is troubled by the recent development. “This is an unfortunate situation and Coursera is working toward a solution that will enable students to access educational content in compliance with U.S. law,” a spokesperson for Coursera told the Inside Higher Ed website. Coursera has also stated that it is “working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Assets Control to secure permissions to reinstate site access for students in sanctioned countries. The Department of State and Coursera are aligned in our goals and we are working tirelessly to ensure that blockage is not permanent.”
Already, it has been determined that Syria is exempted from certain regulations, as the State Departments has authorized “certain services in support of nongovernmental organizations’ activities in Syria, particularly as they pertain to increasing access to education.” Coursera has since restored full access to students in Syria. Coursera remains blocked in Sudan, Iran, and Cuba, however.
Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng said in an interview that he was “cautiously optimistic” Coursera would be able to restore access to the courses in a few weeks.
Nevertheless, the backlash, frustration and disappointment has been swift.
“Are there #sanctions on educational material too?” wrote Saleh Amini. “We were just forming a study group here in Tehran last week to join many other study groups. It is disappointing.” Several others have replied to comment about the seeming conflict with Coursera’s mission “to change the world by educating millions of people by offering classes from top universities and professors online for free.”
A new article by Tehran-based software developer Sallar Kaboli, published February 5 by Medium, puts the effect of sanctions on technology into better perspective. He writes,
In past few years, the United States government has imposed many sanctions on Iran and Iranian people because of the political differences they have with the Iranian government (and I’m not going into that) and they claim they are not affecting lives of Iranians and they’re intended to pressure the government.
Here’s the bad news: They make our lives a living hell.
There are sanctions on exporting hardware, software and services to Iran and anyone from Iran, sanctions on education (MOOC, eg. Coursera), Sanctions on providing Iranians with Web Hosting, Domains and SSL Certificates and many more.
Kaboli goes on to detail the numerous restrictions imposed on the Iranian tech sector and ordinary web-savvy citizens – not only by the Iranian government, but primarily by the U.S. sanctions – and how he works around them using proxies, VPNs, and fake information. “Isn’t that pathetic?,” he writes. “Why should I have to go into this much trouble just to live my life as a developer? What have I done? Just because I’m an Iranian? What’s that called?”
Thank you for imposing democracy on us.
Concluding his own blog post, Ayoub – who is the founder of the Humans of Lebanon Facebok page – similarly wondered, “What possible good can come out of this? The US government is effectively telling the rest of the world that it does not view education as a right, but as a weapon that can be used for political reasons. Ordinary students from Cuba, Syria, Sudan and Iran, who might have once viewed the US favorably thanks to such extraordinary American websites as Coursera, would now view it negatively.”