Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Coursera courses blocked in Cuba (by the US!)

I just got an email from reader and contributor Doug Madory with the subject "Coursera blocked in Cuba."

My first reaction was anger that the Cuban government would block educational material -- maybe they were trying to censor something from a Latin American history class?

But, following the link Doug sent, I discovered that Coursera has been blocked by the U. S. because they were violating export control regulations prohibiting U.S. businesses from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. 

I try to keep my political opinions off this blog, but that is brain damaged.

Coursera says they are "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."

I realize that few people in Cuba can access Coursera classes, but even as a largely symbolic gesture, that is a no-brainer.
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Update 2/5/2014

I have followed up on this story in an attempt to determine whether the U. S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) ordered Coursera to block access to Cuba (and other nations -- Iran. North Korea, Libya and Sudan) or the company blocked access unilaterally in order to avoid possible problems.

Reader Alam Brito pointed out that the Google Code and SourceForge sites were also blocked. (Follow the links in the previous sentence to see their statements on the issue).

I've attempted to contact each of these companies to learn whether the government ordered them to block Cuba and the others. Here is what I have learned so far:
  • Coursera says they were told to block their site by both OFAC and the State Department.
  • SourceForge had promised to get back to me.
  • Google has not answered emails or phone calls.
I also contacted OFAC.  They said they could not comment on specific cases, but sent a copy of the following policy statement:
  • OFAC administers various sanctions programs, including programs that generally prohibit the exportation and re-exportation of goods, services, and technology by U.S. persons and entities to persons located in or ordinarily resident in Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Cuba.
  • For the purpose of these sanctions programs, the prohibition on exportation of services by U.S. persons would apply to the provision of online courses and issuance of certificates of mastery upon completion of an online course to persons located in or ordinarily resident in sanctioned countries, unless specifically or generally licensed.
  • While we will not comment on specific licenses, generally speaking, OFAC has a long history of licensing U.S. academic and educational institutions to engage in exchange programs in third countries as well as to provide certain in-country and online academic and educational training programs in the past.
  • Some programs, such as the Syria sanctions, contain a general license by which U.S. persons and entities are generally authorized to export educational services to persons located in Syria without the need for a specific license from OFAC.
  • Where not authorized by a general license or subject to a specific licensing policy set forth in our regulations, OFAC has a favorable licensing policy to authorize U.S. persons to engage in certain targeted educational, cultural and sports exchange programs, as well as research and humanitarian projects that are designed to benefit people in sanctioned countries. Of course, under a favorable licensing policy, U.S. persons need to come in and seek a license - without that, we cannot act.
  • OFAC, in consultation with the State Department will continue to consider requests by U.S. persons to engage in activities to provide online courses and certificates of mastery to persons located in or ordinarily resident in sanctioned countries.
The fifth bullet point sounds rather positive, but Coursera's optional fee for a certificate of completion might be a sticking point.

OFAC also suggested that I contact edX, which, like Coursera, provides online classes. An edX spokesman said they had never blocked their site, but had requested an OFAC license to allow access in the embargoed nations. The application process took seven months, but the license was granted and they remained open.

So far, it sounds like OFAC is open, but wants to consider each case separately, so requires a license application. I may be wrong, and will hopefully hear more from the blocked companies.

While edX succeeded in obtaining a license, the delay and effort seem inappropriate and the policy is vague enough to discourage potential service providers -- self-censorship by confusion. OFAC should streamline the license application process, but, more important, should clarify their regulations so companies like edX and Coursera could avoid the process entirely.

Stay tuned for feedback from the other companies.

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