Federal laws ban Coursera from users in Cuba, Iran and Sudan

March 4, 2014, 1:44 a.m.

Coursera, the popular online learning platform founded by two Stanford computer science professors, recently blocked access to users in Cuba, Iran and Sudan in order to comply with federal export regulations prohibiting massive open online course (MOOC) providers from operating in sanctioned countries.

Coursera announced the ban at the end of January, and has since engaged in a dialogue on the issue with the State Department.

“I want to give everyone access to a great education,” said Andrew Ng, Coursera’s co-founder. “Having to block certain countries is not well-aligned with the mission of Coursera.”

The site currently uses an IP block to prevent users from sanctioned countries from logging in. Ng said that students, employees and company partners had been upset by the obstruction.

“This is something that affects us and our university partners deeply,” Ng said. “[A few weeks ago], I was in Europe speaking with one of our university partners and trying to offer course content to a refugee camp in Sudan.”

Ng added that Coursera has had positive conversations with the State Department and expressed hope for a constructive resolution. Coursera has also applied for a license to resume full service in the sanctioned countries.

The U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which handles licensing of content such as Coursera’s, declined to comment on the specific license, but noted that the need for an educational content-specific OFAC license had been voided in certain cases (such as the recent sanctions against Syria).

“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,” an OFAC spokeswoman wrote in an email to The Daily. “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,” she added.

According to Ng, the State Department has been very helpful in providing advice to navigate the situation.

“I think [the State Department’s] and our interests are actually well-aligned in that we would like to give the users in these countries access to a great education,” Ng said. “However, we just need to find a way to do so that is in full compliance with the law.”

Contact Kylie Jue at kyliej ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu

Kylie Jue '17 was the Editor-in-Chief for Vol. 250. She first became involved with The Daily as a high school intern and now is a CS+English major at Stanford. A senior from Cupertino, California, she has also worked a CS 106 section leader. To contact Kylie, email her at kyliej ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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