A screenshot of an error message that appears when attempting to access the Coursera website from Iran, Syria, Cuba or Sudan.
(Nina Curley / Wamda)
“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.
Be this as it may, I invite those students affected to use services such as hola.org or VPN routers to circumvent these restrictions.
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.
Nina Curley, a reporter for the website Wamda, which first broke the news of the blockage, noted the ire of Iranians prevented from accessing the service:
“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.”
Originally posted at Muftah.
February 7, 2014 - Over at his excellent blog, New From the Gutter, Tyler Cullis chimes in on the blocking of services like Coursera to Iranian users due to U.S. sanctions. He argues, citing the relevant portions of sanctions legislation and American law, that banning services to civilians is a policy decision, not merely an unfortunately side-effect of so-called "targeted" measures.
While "services" are banned from export to Iran, exemptions for "information and informational materials" can be made. Nevertheless, Cullis points out:
Obviously, thanks to the trouble Coursera and other MOOCs have run into, the Treasury Department has treated MOOCs as providing “services” not captured by the “information and information materials” exception. What is critical to remember is that this is a policy choice, not a legal mandate. The Treasury Department has a wide berth within which to interpret the relevant law in CISADA, and those who are familiar with U.S. administrative law will recall that U.S. courts generally defer to federal agencies when, in the absence of an “unambiguously expressed intent of Congress,” an agency’s reading of a particular statute is “based on a permissible construction of the statute.” Certainly, in this case, a “permissible construction” of CISADA would allow for the export to Iran of educational services not unlike that offered by Coursera. What would be needed is for the Treasury Department to interpret Coursera’s activities either as not “services” within the meaning of CISADA §103(b) or as “services” not captured by the export ban thanks to the “information and informational materials” exception.
In other words, nothing in the law would prevent the Treasury Department from permitting MOOCs to offer their services to students residing in Iran, so long as the Treasury read such educational services as fitting within the “information and informational materials” exception. Treasury is not obliged to make the “correct” reading of the statute, nor even adhere closely to what legislators intended when they drafted the law, but rather merely to render a “permissible construction of the statute” when implementing it. This is a very low bar that the Treasury Department would need to hurdle. This, however, it has chosen not to do.Cullis' entire post is well worth reading. Check it out here.
February 7, 2014 - Just this afternoon, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Treasury Department has once again further expanded the authorization for the export and reexport of certain fee-based services, software and hardware for personal communications to Iran, including mobile phones, modems, computers and"Internet connectivity services and telecommunications capacity."
While this represents a minor alteration in American sanctions policy towards Iran, the prohibition against Iranian students using online education services such as Coursera have still not been lifted.
June 3, 2014 - Coursera has just announced on its blog that "Iranian learners will now regain access to the majority of Coursera's courses," reversing a decision made by the online education giant earlier this year in compliance with U.S. sanctions against Iran, which blocked access to Iranian students.
The lifting of the ban is only partial, however. "Sanctions still prohibit educational institutions and organizations from offering certain subjects, including those in advanced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)" Coursera stated. "To comply, we have identified those specific courses and will be blocking enrollment to learners coming from Iranian IP addresses."
June 25, 2014 - U.S. sanctions against Iran continue to create difficulties for Iranian students wishing to enroll in online education courses.
This week, The Guardian's Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports:
Kaplan, a US-owned education provider in the UK, is refusing students who are residents of Iran enrolment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects as well as any of its post-graduate courses, citing US sanctions.
Applications for more than a dozen Iranians students have been withdrawn since autumn 2013 because the company felt it had to comply with the US regulations and sanctions policy regarding the country.
Although the regulations generally affect only students who are living in Iran, this is not always the case. The restrictions have also been known to affect Iranians studying abroad, demonstrating their discriminatory nature. According to Dehghan, "At least one Iranian student who studied in the UK through Kaplan was refused a certificate at the end of her studies after the company updated its Iran policy."
"Kaplan seems to have arbitrarily decided to ban Iranians from enjoying the same pathway courses at UK universities that all other nationalities currently enjoy," UKstudy.com's Ali Shafie said. "As they are providing on-campus courses at UK government-owned universities, they have a responsibility to not discriminate on the basis of nationality when offering places."
Shafie added, "Iranians already face such difficulties in obtaining visas to study in the UK and also have to deal with a wildly fluctuating exchange rate. They do not deserve to have to also deal with this type of discrimination on the basis of their nationality."
Dehghan also notes the recent decision of Norwegian government to refuse residency permits to a number of Iranian students studying at universities in the country, on the grounds "that the students might transfer sensitive technology to Iran," according to PressTV.