March 24, 2014
Aggressive interpretation of United States controls on international export of certain technologies and technical knowledge is restricting access to online educational courses. Recently Coursera, one of the world’s leading online education systems, modified its policies to block access for students residing in certain countries. Use of export control rules to limit the reach of online education is a seriously troubling strategy that is shortsighted and unnecessary.
The United States and other nations place legal restrictions on international sharing of certain forms of technology and technical information. Generally, technologies and technical knowledge that have potential military applications are deemed to be sensitive from a national security perspective and are thus controlled with regard to international distribution.
International export of controlled technologies and technical knowledge from the United States is prohibited to certain nations, such as Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and North Korea. Export of those controlled materials may require prior approval by the U.S. government when other nations are involved.
Export controls are applicable to the actual transport or transmission of controlled materials to residents of other nations. The controls are also applicable to the transport or transmission of the controlled materials to citizens of other countries, even if those individuals are located within the United States.
U.S. government authorities now reportedly take the position that some of the course content offered through online educational programs such as Coursera falls within the scope of controlled materials. Based on this interpretation, the limitations on international distribution established by the U.S. export controls are now applied to online educational materials.
In response to the government’s application of export controls to online educational programs, course providers such as Coursera have reportedly modified their student access policies and practices. For instance, Coursera now reportedly uses Internet Protocol address blocking systems to prevent individuals located in sanctioned countries from accessing course content.
Actions by Coursera and other online educational systems to comply with the export control requirements are understandable and appropriate. Broad application of the export controls to online educational offerings is, however, problematic.
Use of law to restrict educational content and to limit student access to that content is a troubling trend. A key strength of online educational systems is their expansive geographic reach. Online education enables many people from around the globe to have convenient access to a wide range of educational offerings.
To the extent that export controls and other legal restrictions limit access to online course content, they undermine some of the key benefits that Internet-based education has to offer. National content controls imposed by the United States and other countries should not be used as an excuse to limit the reach and scope of online educational materials.