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.