Coursera and Udacity, but not edX, blocked in Syria and Iran

One of the most-cited aspects of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is their openness – anyone can access the courses with just Internet access and and email address. But this openness might not be valid in all countries based on recent actions.

The media site Wamda, which focuses on supporting entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has a story out today describing how Coursera and Udacity MOOCs have apparently been blocked in Syria and Iran [see update below on Syria].

Just over six months ago, online education platform Coursera thanked a Syrian doctor for a poignant blog post that spoke directly to its mission to change the world by educating the masses. [snip]

Yet today, Dr. Angrimi no longer has that lifeline, as Coursera appears to have blocked Syrian IPs since Friday.

“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.”

At the end of the article, Ahmad Sufian Bayram, the MENA Connector for French collaborative consumption network OuiShare, shared that Coursera is not alone.

Coursera isn’t alone in that predicament; Coursera competitor Udacity, which is also for-profit, has been banned for a while in Syria, says Bayram. One site that still works is EdX, the nonprofit MOOC platform founded by MIT, which offers courseware for free.

Yet EdX only offers a few courses, says Bayram. For the foreseeable future, there’s no solution. “We rely on these courses to improve our thinking and to get more jobs,” he explains. “This is going to be difficult.”

Despite the article title, it appears that this is not a story about the MOOC providers deciding on their own to block access to their site. Rather, this is a matter of US export control policy.

While I do not have direct knowledge of the decision, it is worth understanding official US export policy for both Syria and Iran. The summary document from the Treasury Department on Iran sanctions has the following section [emphasis added]:

• EXPORTS TO IRAN – In general, unless licensed by OFAC, goods, technology, or services may not be exported, reexported, sold or supplied, directly or indirectly, from the United States or by a U.S. person, wherever located, to Iran or the Government of Iran. The ban on providing services includes any brokering function from the United States or by U.S. persons, wherever located. For example, a U.S. person, wherever located, or any person acting within the United States, may not broker offshore transactions that benefit Iran or the Government of Iran, including sales of foreign goods or arranging for third-country financing or guarantees. [snip]

Donations of articles intended to relieve human suffering (such as food, clothing, and medicine), gifts valued at $100 or less, licensed exports of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices, and trade in “information and informational materials” are permitted. “Information and informational materials” are defined to include publications, films, posters, phonograph records, photographs, microfilms, microfiche, tapes, compact disks, CD ROMs, artworks, and news wire feeds, although certain Commerce Department restrictions still apply to some of those materials. To be considered informational material, artworks must be classified under chapter subheadings 9701, 9702, or 9703 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States.

The Syria document prohibits:

The direct or indirect exportation, reexportation, sale, or supply of any services to Syria from the United States or by a U.S. person, wherever located;

What is not clear is whether Coursera and Udacity are considered “information and informational materials” under the Iran document’s definition. It is interesting how outdated that definition is (where did I put that microfiche – is it under my typewriter?). It is also not clear why edX is still available.

There is some small irony in US export control policy preventing the access to Coursera and Udacity MOOCs, as the State Department recently sanctioned several people in Iran for Internet censorship.

The move against Communications Minister Reza Taghipour came after he was blamed for ordering the jamming of international satellite TV broadcasts and restricting Internet access, a State Department official said.

The United States was determined to stop the “Iranian government from creating an ‘electronic curtain’ to cut Iranian citizens off from the rest of the world,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Note that I’m trying to track down whether encryption technologies might be the explanation for the blocking of these site.

If anyone has more information on these restrictions, let me know via the comments or through the e-Literate contact form. For now, count this story as another example of the regulatory challenges that online education providers encounter.

Update: I just found this from Coursera’s help page:

As you may know, certain United States 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 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.

Students in affected countries attempting to log in will see the following message:

Sign In

We truly regret that this is the case and apologize to users who were caught off guard by this change, but we must comply with U.S. laws regarding economic and trade restrictions.

This likely means, as stated by @GlobalHigherEd, that “education provided by a MOOC is officially a tradable ‘service’ vs information”.

Update: Nina Curley, author of the original story at Wamda, was notified by Coursera that it has reinstated access in Syria. She also confirmed that it was the State Department specifically making the ruling and that it was based on the services, not Coursera’s for-profit status. See full update at Nina’s original story.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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5 Responses to Coursera and Udacity, but not edX, blocked in Syria and Iran

  1. Pingback: No MOOCs for Iran or Syria? | GlobalHigherEd

  2. Pingback: Coursera blocked in Iran due to human grading and discussion forums? | e-Literatee-Literate

  3. Nina Curley says:

    Phil, thanks for the look into this story. Coursera notified us this morning that their decision was made to comply with new clarifications in US export law, but that they determined that Syria is an exception, so they have reinstated access in Syria. We reported on this, and comments communities have made about using VPNs to circumvent the block: http://www.wamda.com/2014/01/coursera-blocks-syria-and-iran-moocs-online-courses

  4. Phil Hill says:

    Nina, Thanks for the update (and the original story) – great reporting. I’ll update my two posts.

    FWIW, note the second story, which captured that the specific issues are human grading of quizzes & assessments, peer reviews, and discussion forum. Those items seem to have been the trigger to cause State to classify MOOCs as educational services and thus subject to sanction rules.

    http://mfeldstein.com/coursera-blocked-iran-due-human-grading-discussion-forums/

  5. Pingback: MOOCs and Academic Exchanges Now Allowed for Iranian Students | e-Literatee-Literate

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