Error 403: Syrians Blocked From Online Learning Platforms
from the don't-punish-victims-of-regimes dept
Individuals in dictatorships need more freedom not less. Syrians have for years been unable to work remotely or pay for remote services, even educational ones. Do we want to do the same now to Afghans, who are already in fear of the Taliban? Examining in detail the experiences of Syrians, can maybe lead us to a better solution.
Major online distance learning platforms based in the US, such as Coursera, that have emerged as crucial tools during the pandemic, are partially or fully blocked in Syria because of U.S. sanctions. While intended to weaken the Syrian government, the sanctions have also restricted access to an online learning universe that could offer critical opportunities to ordinary Syrians trapped in difficult circumstances.
With a global audience of 87 million learners, Coursera offers free lecture courses from universities around the world, including many top-tier American schools such as University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and Northwestern.
But in the war-torn country, people are unable to take advantage of the online high quality courses.
Coursera is not alone: Its competitor, Udacity, is also banned in Syria. Of the major online learning platforms, the only one operating in Syria is edX, the nonprofit platform founded by MIT. However edX only offers a few courses. This is particularly problematic for a country that has often relied on these courses to innovate and create new job opportunities.
But why is Syria sanctioned?
Syria has been the target of economic sanctions imposed by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) since 1979, when the Carter administration added Syria to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The program includes trade embargoes, import and export restrictions, investment bans, asset freezes, and travel bans.
President Bush further expanded the U.S. Syria sanctions program in 2004 as part of the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 (SAA).
In 2011, President Obama imposed new sanctions against Syria in response to the Assad regime’s targeting of civilians in pro-democracy uprisings. The 2011 sanctions targeted the Syrian oil sector, freezing the assets of Syrian individuals and entities, prohibiting petroleum imports and investments, and prohibiting the sale of services to Syria.
What does this mean for Syrians?
The restrictions seem more symbolic than effective. IP address bans are notoriously easy to work around — to access the blocked websites, Syrians often resort to VPNs that mask their location. The problem is that VPNs are often unreliable and may interfere with the interactive experience offered by the platforms.
Even if Syrians manage to access free online learning classes via a VPN, they are unable to obtain certificates of completion, since those require a fee as and no online payment methods are available from within the country due to these same sanctions.
The same scenario applies to language tests. Syrians are unable to take TOEFL and IELTS, the two main English language proficiency tests accepted across the world, as payments made from within Syria are not accepted.
The easiest option is to take these tests in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, but the costs of travelling are too high for the large majority of Syrians (80% live in poverty, according to UN data released in March 2021).
An alternative to IELTS and TOEFL is the Duolingo English Test, which became available in late 2020 after Duolingo managed to receive a special exemption from OFAC. While the exam can be taken online while in Syria, the fee must be paid from outside Syria. As such, people have to ask friends and relatives living in other countries to make the payment for them, a significant obstacle due to the difficulty of conducting wire transfers in the country.
Computer science students and software engineers are also unable to access some essential services offered by Microsoft’s GitHub, the world’s most-used tool for software development.
On top of all that, at a moment when much of the rest of the world is relying on digital tools to survive a pandemic, Syrians are also unable to access other online services, such as Amazon Books and Zoom, that have been crucial for online learning elsewhere.
We Need Better Legal Frameworks
People under military rule are essentially “Stateless” and should be provided opportunities to integrate into the global economy rather than kept out. The rationale for comprehensive sanctions seems to be that any money flowing into a country with a military dictator will end up in the dictator’s hands. However, this is not always the case – and allowing people a way to make a living and to educate themselves, independent of the ruling class, is likely to be in everyone’s interests in the long run.
Raise the Voices is an International human rights project that supports victims and their families.