United States Sanctions On Exporting Open Online Learning Courses Are Completely Backwards

from the aiding-the-enemy dept

Between Syria, Cuba, Iran and Sudan, Americans bothering to pay attention to the world around them are becoming increasingly familiar with how we sanction other countries and the intricacies of those sanctions. The intersection of sanctions and technology tend to revolve around the export of hardware, software, and services to nations with regimes we don't particularly care for. All of these sanctions are typically designed to achieve one or both of the following goals: altering the behavior of the regime in question and/or encouraging the people of that nation to rise up against the regime by making everyone completely miserable.

With that in mind, we can now conclusively say that at least some of the tech sanctions levied against some countries are completely useless and should be done away with, namely those that intermittently punish the people of Syria, Iran, Cuba and Sudan, preventing their people from accessing open education platforms.

Coursera, which according to its site aims “to change the world by educating millions of people by offering classes from top universities and professors online for free,” is now subjected to a recent directive from the US federal government that has forced some MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) providers to block access for users in sanctioned countries such as Iran and Cuba. Coursera explains the change in its student support center:

"The interpretation of export control regulations as they related to MOOCs was unclear for a period of time, and Coursera had been operating under one interpretation of the law. Recently, Coursera received a clear answer indicating that certain aspects of the Coursera MOOC experience are considered ‘services’ (and all services are highly restricted by export controls). While many students from these countries were previously able to access Coursera, this change means that we will no longer be able to provide students in sanctioned countries with access to Coursera moving forward."
While updates to this post suggest that connectivity to Syrians has been reestablished, that isn't so with regard to countries like Iran, Cuba or Sudan. Examine for a moment the practical application of this kind of sanctioning. The US has identified a regime we do not like, which will almost by definition be relatively well-educated, affluent, and powerful. That regime oppresses its people. To combat this, part of our sanctions policy is designed to prevent the oppressed people from accessing educational services that would offer a ladder towards the educational standards enjoyed by the offending regime. Knowledge is power, of course, and the ability to learn about the world outside of the pens in which these countries have placed their own people is a tool that could be used to encourage change in these countries. Don't take that from me, take it from the governments in those nations which are quite busy censoring the internet out of fear of their people becoming more educated. And now the US is essentially joining the censoring party, too.
In September 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called on the US to lift all restrictions “that deny citizens access to vital communications tools.” But the US has continued its piecemeal approach, going back and forth between blocking new ranges of transactions to allowing the export of certain services.

“These sorts of export restrictions are overbroad and contain elements which have no effect on the Syrian regime, while preventing Syrian citizens from accessing a wealth of tools that are available to their activist counterparts in neighboring countries and around the world,” EFF stated.
Likewise in Iran, Cuba, and Sudan. A common complaint one sometimes gets from peace activists is that sanctions should be lifted because they don't hurt the regime, only the innocent civilians. That complaint is usually moot, because often times the entire point is to hurt the citizens to breed unrest building towards revolution. But in this case, the harm is repressing the capacity for change, and therefore serves no purpose. Even beyond the humanist concept of exporting information and education as a simple matter of human rights, these sanctions can only have the opposite effect of their intention.

Fortunately, Coursera appears to have a genuine interest in spreading education and, as they did with the Syrian issue, appear to want to work with the US government to get around these outdated sanctions.
Coursera ended the announcement of the changes that prevent access to their courses in sanctioned countries with the following note: “We value our global community of users and sincerely regret the need to take this action. Please know that Coursera is currently working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Asset Control to secure the necessary permissions to reinstate site access for users in sanctioned countries.”
If the US government has any interest in their sanctioning policies beyond using them as some kind of penis-measuring contest, they'll act quickly to give Coursera the ability to export education to the nations of oppressed people, otherwise known as the places where it is most sorely needed.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Just Sayin', Jan 31st, 2014 @ 9:09pm

    You miss the point

    The idea of sanctions is that, while the US cannot change what is going on in a given country short of bombing it back to the middle ages, it can do things which will cause the citizens to get upset at their government.

    If you are denied access to something because your government disallows it, and you think it is vital, then you will protest. The slow but steady changes in Iran in the last year or so have been in part because it's citizens are tired of getting the shaft on everything from the internet to fuel for their cars (most people don't know that Iran is an oil exporter, but due to failed policies by the government is also a net gas and diesel importer!).

    Sanctions are the best any country can do without taking military action. It's not much, but it perhaps teaches the citizens slowly but surely that your government is harming your way of life.

     

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  2.  
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    G Thompson (profile), Jan 31st, 2014 @ 10:17pm

    An easy fix for this is for someone NOT in the USA to copy every single item on the coursera MOOCs in question and allow them to be assessed by Cuba et.al outside of the USA..

    I think I'll do that for every one Ive done and am currently doing.. for example the current "Constitutional Law" MOOC by by Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Uni

    I mean how dare these foreigners (Myself included) elarn about American law and doctrines.. The horror, the fear of actual democratic principles being adopted outside of the Undemocratic USA...

    Fuck EM!

     

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  3.  
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    G Thompson (profile), Jan 31st, 2014 @ 10:24pm

    Also Id be very hard pressed to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Asset Control when you are dealing with Coursera MOOCs run by NON US Universities and Educational Institutions..

    I'm ABSOLUTELY positive the Australian, Hong Kong, UK, Israel (maybe), German, and other worldwide Uni's would be very concerned and would basically be willing (if not mandated) too supplying these Free short courses to these countries.. Especially Cuba where no-one other than the idiot USA actually sanctions them.

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 1:43am

    Look at how those regimes opress their people
    Now look at what direction the US is heading
    If they keep doing this, one day the US will be on the other side of the sanctioning.

     

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  5.  
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    anonymouse, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 3:18am

    Wait!!!!

    Although AMerica seems to think they are the hotbed of innovation there are many countries doing amazing things on the internet, it will only be a matter of time before countries will start blocking American people from their innovative and advanced websites and then the shoe will be on the other foot, especially if it is scientific innovation and where all ip addresses from the us are blocked....not that the US is achieving anything with their blocks as proxy servers work to unblock anything anyone tries to block but the actual idea that America is being blocked will cause the American people to start rising up against their government just as America want people to rise up against their government's that America does not like.And America has more trouble that it is using propaganda to hide so America is the only losing side in this war.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 3:45am

    Re:

    I read somewhere that in these cases the USA pretends its jurisdiction remains "attached" to the information even after it leaves the USA, so if for instance a Brazilian downloads some information from the USA and later uploads it to Cuba, he's breaking a USA law, and the USA can go after him.

    It makes no bloody sense, but that's the USA for you.

     

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  7.  
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    btrussell (profile), Feb 1st, 2014 @ 6:26am

    "All of these sanctions are typically designed to achieve one or both of the following goals: altering the behavior of the regime in question and/or encouraging the people of that nation to rise up against the regime by making everyone completely miserable."

    Seems they are making many nations miserable these days. Including their own. Sure doesn't make me want to go and buy american products. For the first time in my life, I would look at an imported vehicle before buying N.American. The bailout started it, the spying finished it.

     

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  8.  
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    btrussell (profile), Feb 1st, 2014 @ 6:27am

    Re:

    I. AM. CANADIAN.

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 6:31am

    First Amendment
    Amendment I

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    this is clearly a freedom of speech issue .

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    PP, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 6:38am

    Re:

    Some of them are available on piratebay: thepiratebay.se/tag/coursera

     

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  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 6:40am

    Did everyone forget?

    This is essentially what sanctions are all about. Of course the people have to suffer, that is its very nature. You all need to start waking up and smelling the roses people. Day in and day out I keep seeing these news articles trying to lay the blame of our problems on everyone else but the people causing the problem.

    Everyone only thinks about these things individually... oh look, mother of 3 is starving to death. She has no education, here husband ran off, & America is not holding that family's hand. From the individual perspective, does this woman of 3 deserve this? Probably not, is America to blame? Probably not. But all too often you don't hear about the blame going where it needs to go collectively. Revisiting the same mother of 3 that are starving and looking at this from a collective level you can see where the blame squarely lies. #1. Her government, a prick set of asses that would rather see her starve and be in power than to act like humans with a conscience. #2. The dirt bag father of the 3 that ran off, and #3 the citizenry et al are also responsible for not putting a stop to their oppressive governments.

    As an American Citizen... let me assure you... the Problem with America is not its Government... it is in FACT America's Citizens! WE keep voting in assholes that do this stuff... WE keep letting in more and more people that are 'tenderized' to suffering and oppressive governments... WE keep letting the police get away with literal murder, and WE keep letting our elected officials get away with BS.

    Life on this planet would in fact be better if people were not default evil... realize what this means and go look in the mirror next time you got something for yourself while you had knowledge of another person near you suffering financially. It is the nature of humanity to screw each other over in favor of themselves.

    So stop blaming the US Government for Bad sanctions against a repressive regime leading a bunch of people who rolled over and would live in servitude instead of fight for their freedom. America was once great when it was lead by people who desired freedom and was filled with the like, now it is lead by people who desire power and filled with people who desire comfort and not willing to fight for freedom. We shall go exactly the way of the despot as we are already seeing with our president and his 'I got a pen..' & 'with or without congress...' spew that is regularly seen in the news now.

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 6:50am

    Re: Did everyone forget?

    You know talking down to people isn't a very good motivator.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 7:33am

    Re: Did everyone forget?

    /s Yeah, we have way too much freedom.

     

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  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 1st, 2014 @ 8:26am

    Re: Did everyone forget?

    Hmmmm, let's see now.
    Should I vote for this corporate puppet or that corporate puppet ... decisions decisions.
    I just know that if I make the wrong choice I will be blamed for all the corporate driven greedy bullshit that happens.

    Ok, I've decided - I'll simply vote against the one who is the biggest asshole. Lately this has become very easy.

    fyi: I will continue to blame those who are responsible and I will not agree with the apologists attempting to deflect responsibility away from their masters. These are not children who deserve a break because they do not know better, they are grown adults who are greedy and do not give a shit.

     

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  15.  
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    Unchosen One (profile), Feb 1st, 2014 @ 11:06am

    If the US government has any interest in their sanctioning policies beyond using them as some kind of penis-measuring contest

    You misunderstand. They're competing for the most ineffective sanction policy award with the UK.

    The UK's current record is zero effectiveness with it's sanctions against the export of online MMO's to Lebanon, a country where a grand total of 5 people play UK based games, and where exactly 0 people are willing to pay for them.

    Of course the only way the US could beat this record is by making sanctions that have negative effectiveness, hence this prime display of incompetence.

    Well played America, well played.

     

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  16.  
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    living in belarus, Feb 2nd, 2014 @ 1:42am

    Re: Re:

    haha .. I'm swiss... wait.. I moved to Belarus.. guess that makes me Belarussian!

    I love what America used to be.. what it stood for.. but the last 20 years has seen it all fall apart.. 220 years to build..23 to revert back to ignorance and hate .. and to top it off. you cant even move and get away from it anymore inside the country.. it is a shame.. and the project was a great idea.. but in the end.. no better then the rest

     

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  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 2nd, 2014 @ 5:39am

    but the last 20 years has seen it all fall apart

    The 80s is where it started , since then it's one corporate lobby after another , It's kind of embarrassing.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 2nd, 2014 @ 7:10am

    Recently, Coursera received a clear answer indicating that certain aspects of the Coursera MOOC experience are considered ‘services’ (and all services are highly restricted by export controls).

    This is an area of the law in which I have practiced for over 30 years, so this article obviously piques my interest, and especially the comment that "services" are apparently being applied to on-line teaching. Part of what makes no sense is that the "communication of information" generally relates to certain types of information, with information of the type generally taught in schools of higher education exempt from our export control laws. The same also holds true for information readily available to the general public.

    Any info re how "services" are being defined?

     

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  19.  
    identicon
    David, Feb 2nd, 2014 @ 11:14am

    Re:

    Well, Cuba has affordable health care. They can hardly complain about retaliatory action when they make the U.S.A. look bad.

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 2nd, 2014 @ 11:48am

    Winning hearts and minds.

     

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  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 3rd, 2014 @ 8:31am

    I think the government is trying to improve our ratings in education... By making everyone else stupider.

     

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  22.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 3rd, 2014 @ 10:27am

    Re: Did everyone forget?

    So you think that collective punishment of people is OK, then? Even though, if it were to happen in wartime, it would be considered a war crime?

    Good to know.

     

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  23.  
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    G Thompson (profile), Feb 5th, 2014 @ 8:34am

    Re: You miss the point

    What absolute and unadulterated BULLSHIT.

    The only thing the actual citizens get angry at is the narcissism of the USA and its audacity to assume that it somehow can inflict its ideals of democracy (that's a laugh in itself) or other ideals of [insert some stupid moralistic crusade/war/bullshit here] on another jurisdiction especially when the REST OF THE PLANET WONT! ie: CUBA

    But hey... those Floridians that were ex cubans can't have them being butthurt in their ego's can you.. Where would you get the money to elect Governers, Senators, Presidents from then hey?

    idiot

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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