Coursera, which provides massive open online courses (MOOC), has the noble mission of "connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits." Unfortunately, the State Department and the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) disagree. They recently decided that the company cannot extend such opportunities to a few academically underprivileged countries.
The organization posted a notice to its website on Tuesday explaining that the U.S. government now requires it to block IP addresses in certain sanctioned countries.
Who will miss out on hundreds of free classes, offered in 12 languages, and covering a broad range of fields, including economics, the humanities, and medicine? Cuba, which ranks outside the top 50 education systems in the world, Iran, which is less well off than 40 percent of the world, and Sudan, which is worse than 90 percent.
These three aren't the only ones who will be impacted, though. The announcement notes that, "In rare instances, students with IP addresses bordering on but not geopolitically within the bounds of these countries will be affected."
What's behind this academic censorship? Federal regulations. "United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries," Coursera explains. The website itself is still be viewable, because it falls under "public information," whereas the departments consider the educational materials to be "services."
Coursera has operated since April 2012, and although the company has been talking with the State Department and OFAC "for quite some time… only very recently were we advised… that the course experience was determined to be a service offering and we have since been working closely with [federal officials] to ensure that Coursera remains in compliance with U.S. law," co-founder Daphne Koller told the Wall Street Journal.
Yet, whether services are allowed in sanctioned countries is not always clear-cut. The OFAC initially included Syria on the list of prohibited nations, but later clarified that educational services are permissible there. Other exceptions have been made for other organizations. According to Inside Higher Ed, "edX, the MOOC provider founded in partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology… has since last May worked with the U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, and has so far applied for and received company-specific licenses for its MOOCs to enroll students in Cuba and Iran."
Although it may stop some, the government-ordered IP address block cannot prevent all Cubans, Iranians, and Sudanese from educating themselves, thanks to easily accessible proxy servers that disguise one's location.