US bans students from “blacklisted” countries from getting a free education

The image you get if you are in Iran, Syria, Cuba or Sudan
The image you get if you are in Iran, Syria, Cuba or Sudan

I’m following a Coursera course entitled “Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World” and just received a rather odd email. All students from Syria, Sudan, Iran and Cuba will no longer be able to access Coursera. As some of you may know, Coursera is an online website that offers free courses from many of the world’s top universities.

Here’s the email, which can also be viewed on the Course’s main page.

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Dear AllI write this email under protest and with a considerable degree of anger and sadness. Few things illustrate the bone-headedness, short-sightedness, and sheer chauvinism of the political structure of the United States better than the extent to which its ideologues are willing to go to score cheap domestic political points with narrow interests in the pursuit of a sanctions regime that has clearly run its course.

You might remember the Apple ad from a few years back, in which the company proudly announced that their machines were now so powerful that they fell under export restrictions: “For the first time in history a personal computer has been classified as a weapon by the US government …”

Well, that was a tongue in cheek quip at their Wintel competitors, but a few years after that same company decided that also an iPad apparently could now a weapon, in a rather cowardly anticipatory cow-tow to an ever expanding and aggressive sanctions regime, when they stopped selling any of their products to anyone who happened to SPEAK Persian in their stores (the company has since lifted that idiotic policy):

But you will now be interested to hear that also my course (and anything else Coursera offers) has been classified, if not a weapon that could be misused, then at least a “service” and as such must not fall into the hands of anybody happening to live in the countries that the United States government doesn’t like. I have thus been informed that my students in Cuba, Syria, Sudan and my homeland will no longer be able to access this course. I leave it to you to ponder whether this course is indeed a weapon and if so against what and what possible benefit the average American citizen could possibly derive from restricting access to it.

Be this as it may, I invite those students affected to use services such as or VPN routers to circumvent these restrictions.

Let me reiterate that I am appalled at this decision. Please note that no-one at Coursera likely had a choice in this matter!

At any rate, rest assured that these are not the values of the University of Copenhagen, of its Faculty of Law, and most assuredly not mine!

Let me end on a personal note: as a recipient of a McCloy Scholarship created to foster trans-Atlantic friendship and as someone who spent some of his most formative years in the United States, I have to admit that I am worried about the path this country is descending to. Blocking teaching (and medicine) from people whose government one doesn’t like is a fallback into the darkest hours of the last century. As my teacher at MIT, Prof. Stephen Van Evera would have told the people responsible for this: your mothers would not be proud of you today.

Your instructor,

Prof. Dr. Ebrahim Afsah
Faculty of Law
University of Copenhagen

PS: Below an excerpt of the communication I received from Coursera; I know from previous engagements that there is absolutely nothing they can do in the current legal climate in the United States:

“As some of you already know, certain U.S. 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 the export control regulations in the context of MOOCs has been ambiguous up until now, and we had been operating under one interpretation of the law. Last week, Coursera received definitive guidance indicating that access to the course experience is considered a service, and all services are highly restricted by export controls.
In particular, the notion of “services” includes offering access to human grading of quizzes and assessments, peer-graded homework, and discussion forums. Regrettably, Coursera must therefore cease offering MOOC access to users in certain sanctioned countries in order to ensure compliance with these U.S. laws and to avoid serious legal ramifications.”

PPS: I don’t think it is very constructive to voice your opposition to Coursera, as they can’t do anything about it anyway. If you feel you must voice your discontent, direct it at the political representatives who are responsible for this situation, i.e. your congressman or -woman if you are a US citizen or the local US representation if you are not.

An Iranian student has already posted on Coursera’s Facebook page:

2014-01-28 23_34_07-Coursera

What possible good can come out of this? The US government is effectively telling the rest of the world that it does not view education as a right, but as a weapon that can be used for political reasons. Ordinary students from Cuba, Syria, Sudan and Iran, who might have once viewed the US favorably thanks to such extraordinary American websites as Coursera, would now view it negatively.

You can also find me on Twitter @JoeyAyoub

44 thoughts on “US bans students from “blacklisted” countries from getting a free education

    1. This is the case for all access to knowledge. Might have been tightened, but is here since the cold war. In fact, only the American Mathematical Society was honourful to disregard such orders, as they historical had to reach out to Soviet scientists to learn the maths necessary to put satellites into orbit [at the time Pontryagin told americans that if they wanted to learn, they should come to him, he wouldn’t go to the US].
      In brief, it is more telling about the lack of commitment to the democratization of knowledge from the organisations that implement the ban. An editor like willey, refuses to ship books to banned markets, he said:”our products are market restricted”. Society of Exploration Geophysicists started implementing ban in 2013.
      The answer to this is:
      1 – spread the knowledge about good reference books and textbooks, instead of stupid empty courses. Students at Prestigious University are good not because they are being injected good courses into their brains. Rather because they get told the good textbook, and the proper projects to work on.
      2- a lot of textbooks are getting hacked and exchanged for free among developing world students. Students can get most important books on these platforms.
      3 – if there is real demand for knowledge, and since usually the corruption of those government are through the roof that they don’t leave money to invest on libraries. Then students can unite to buy some of the book through a neighboring country. Once a copy is available: photocopy are done at very cheap prices.
      4 – Offer access to free VPN, to that sudents can present themselves as “sweedes”, or “russians”.

  1. This is so backwards and so moronic on levels beyond comprehension. I read that they reinstated full access in Syria though, so that’s a plus. Still. What. The. Hell.

  2. The way around this would be to host the website in some other country. It’s a policy to do with sanctions and education is a service. I know it’s not a good thing but it’s not like Coursera wants to break some rules. It might even be at the level of the universities. It’s the same reason people in Syria, Iran, Cuba, etc can’t use Amazon or US based internet companies.

    1. bruh!. the citizen of these countries aren’t stupid:
      1- they can get the good local teacher to do equally as good courses. Don’t overestimate the courses it good universities. It isn’t the courses, it is the access to bibliography that counts the most. Besides anything you can learn by simply working 15*1.5h, you could do so by yourself with a few more weeks. And, if the course is that good, it would already be a textbook. The course notes are only needed for comparison purposes
      2- they can put in charge someone that does a httpget of these sites on a regular bases, from a position in Dubai, or elsewhere, and ship them the CD,
      US/EU have been banning equipment from Syria for years. But when someone wants something: he ask a guy in Belgium, that sell it to sometime in Dubai, that sends it to Jordan to another guy who gets it in Syria. You can’t buy software like ANSYS, but can get a hack from Ukraine for 10$, These sanctions are as stupid as the government that imposes them, and the shitty universities/websites that surrender. Don’t you remember when Syrian students weren’t allowed access to computing servers in Saudi university of KAUST, because they can build the next rival to the F22 with it. What a joke.

  3. I can’t complain to my senator as I don’t have one not everyone who uses the internet is American…only the ones who live in America generally. Also I’d like to point out that many of the Universities providing courses are not American either…how fucking dare you, (the people doing this).. block anyone from education on the basis of your myopic politics. You disgust me more and more every day.

    1. Probably, but now that you know that the website has no real commitment to free access to education. Do you think their courses have more value than their ethics?

    1. are you for real? A website full of pussies can stand up for the right to free education. and you want people to petition the government?

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  5. If you meet anybody from India ask him “What is Your Caste?” If he answers it, then you’re doomed. Because he has already injected Cancer into your society. Caste is like Cancer. It cannot be Cured. It has to be Cut-off.

  6. I’m from Brazil and I would be pissed if that happened to us. Still, we do the same in personal level every time we choose giving or not money to some hobo. I don’t give that money if I think they will use in drugs or alcohol.

    1. The knowledge provided by these sites is so precious, that anyone can simply cross the border and have access to it. So it is undoubtedly key to making battlecruisers fleets with nucular war heads that ruins democracy.

  7. People need to user a VPN or . Piracy has been illegal for as long as I can remember, yet that doesn’t stop Bittorrent traffic worth 50% of the internet. USA are trying to play tough to enforce their political will, yet they are not God. People can circumvent these measures, it’s just a little bit harder for them.

  8. Good operate! This can be a sort of facts that are meant to often be contributed throughout the net. Disgrace for the search for search engines for the time being never positioning that upload superior! Occur around along with check with the web-site. Cheers Equates to)

  9. To the famely of CBS Otis Livingston. Otis Livingston causing too many problems for our business if he will touch any person he will pay dealy remember that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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