Coursera regrets: Students from Cuba, Iran, Sudan banned due to U.S. law

Coursera regrets: Students from Cuba, Iran, Sudan banned due to U.S. law

Summary: Education for the masses clashed with export law.. the law won.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 12.22.18

Online learning service Coursera has withdrawn its service from Cuba, Iran and Sudan following an examination of U.S. export law.

The massive open online course (MOOC) provider has over six million registered students able to take their pick from 596 courses offered by educational institutions worldwide. Tools, lectures and quizzes are part of courses ranging from cybersecurity to ethics and classical music composition. As a student myself who has tackled studies in cryptography and game programming, I've found the classes -- taken over a number of weeks -- useful, although sometimes difficult to fit in through my work schedule.

That's no cause for complaint, however, since the classes are free and part of the MOOC provider's aim to "provide access to education for everyone."

Everyone, except students residing in Cuba, Iran or Sudan.

In a move that is counter-productive to the startup's mission statement, Coursera has blocked its own services from these countries due to U.S. restrictions on international business. Within a blog post, Coursera said that with "deep regret" the students in these countries will no longer be able to access free courses.

As the organization is not non-profit and does make money from students pursuing particular certificates or exams, under U.S. law, Coursera's courses are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions as they are considered exports. As of this week, students in Cuba, Iran or Sudan cannot log in to course pages or create new accounts, but can still browse the course catalog and reach Coursera's blog as they are "considered public information rather than services and therefore not subject to restrictions."

The company states:

"Our global community is incredibly valuable to us and we remain committed to providing quality to education to all. During this time, we empathize with the frustrations of students who are affected by this change and we have made it a top priority to make rapid progress toward a solution.

Coursera is working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Assets Control to secure permissions to reinstate site access for students in sanctioned countries."

The MOOC provider says that the interpretation of export control regulations relating to MOOCs has been fuzzy in the past, and so Coursera thought it would not be restricted. However, Coursera says that "recently received information has led to the understanding that the services offered on Coursera are not in compliance with the law as it stands."

There is, however, a silver lining. Coursera has implemented an IP address book which stops them in particular countries, but hypothetically until -- if -- the block is lifted, the use of a virtual private network (VPN) could allow students to continue learning. In addition, service has been restored in Syria after a regulation loophole for certain non-government organizations in education allowed the block to be lifted.

It is, no doubt, a difficult position for Coursera to be in. Restricting service to several countries allows it to comply with U.S. law -- which could in theory take the service down for good -- but this move clashes against its ethos of free education for the masses, no matter where you're from.

Topics: Education, Government US

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Easy solution

    Move Coursera to another country.
  • Petty is what petty does

    But it sounds as though they weren't officially warned about not offering courses to residents of those countries, just that they got "information" that they were not in compliance. There is enough overall fuzziness here that they could simply ask the State Dept. for the clear things up. There are US based NGOs operating in Cuba doing development work, and offering educational courses could be seen along the same lines. They just need to ask the right people instead of throwing in the towel based on vague interpretations of the law.
  • Amazon Web Services

    Is Coursera under greater scrutiny and/or control because it is powered by Amazon Web Services which lobbied hard for and won the contract to build a half billion dollar cloud computing infrastructure for the CIA?
  • Compliance in the Virtual Arena with US Sanctions and Export Control Laws

    Coursera made the right decision; with the right counsel and guidance from the US government, they will likely be able to offer certain educational services to this country. I doubt they've thrown in the towel. Just re-grouping.
    Jason Poblete
  • Hypocrisy of US government

    Pornographic, sexual and unethical photos and movies are not prohibited but free online education is prohibited.
    One can understand the true corrupt nature of the government of United states of America, which is run by thugs and people who are simply following their own interests and secret agendas.
    Think, ponder and decide about what I said above. Isn't it a hypocrisy?

    If the decisions of US government are in favor of humanity and people then the first thing they would do is stop the pornographic and sexual websites and business, which is unfortunately legally allowed by the same government.