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September 2021
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Error 403: Syrians Blocked From Online Learning Platforms

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Individuals in dictatorships need more freedom not less. Syrians have for years been unable to work remotely or pay for remote services, even educational ones. Do we want to do the same now to Afghans, who are already in fear of the Taliban? Examining in detail the experiences of Syrians, can maybe lead us to a better solution.Major online distance learning platforms based in the US, such as Coursera, that have emerged as crucial tools during the pandemic, are partially or fully blocked in Syria because of U.S. sanctions. While intended to weaken the Syrian government, the sanctions have also restricted access to an online learning universe that could offer critical opportunities to ordinary Syrians trapped in difficult circumstances.With a global audience of 87 million learners, Coursera offers free lecture courses from universities around the world, including many top-tier American schools such as University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and Northwestern.But in the war-torn country, people are unable to take advantage of the online high quality courses.Coursera is not alone: Its competitor, Udacity, is also banned in Syria. Of the major online learning platforms, the only one operating in Syria is edX, the nonprofit platform founded by MIT. However edX only offers a few courses. This is particularly problematic for a country that has often relied on these courses to innovate and create new job opportunities.But why is Syria sanctioned?Syria has been the target of economic sanctions imposed by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) since 1979, when the Carter administration added Syria to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The program includes trade embargoes, import and export restrictions, investment bans, asset freezes, and travel bans.President Bush further expanded the U.S. Syria sanctions program in 2004 as part of the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 (SAA).In 2011, President Obama imposed new sanctions against Syria in response to the Assad regime’s targeting of civilians in pro-democracy uprisings. The 2011 sanctions targeted the Syrian oil sector, freezing the assets of Syrian individuals and entities, prohibiting petroleum imports and investments, and prohibiting the sale of services to Syria.What does this mean for Syrians?The restrictions seem more symbolic than effective. IP address bans are notoriously easy to work around — to access the blocked websites, Syrians often resort to VPNs that mask their location. The problem is that VPNs are often unreliable and may interfere with the interactive experience offered by the platforms.Even if Syrians manage to access free online learning classes via a VPN, they are unable to obtain certificates of completion, since those require a fee as and no online payment methods are available from within the country due to these same sanctions.The same scenario applies to language tests. Syrians are unable to take TOEFL and IELTS, the two main English language proficiency tests accepted across the world, as payments made from within Syria are not accepted.The easiest option is to take these tests in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, but the costs of travelling are too high for the large majority of Syrians (80% live in poverty, according to UN data released in March 2021).An alternative to IELTS and TOEFL is the Duolingo English Test, which became available in late 2020 after Duolingo managed to receive a special exemption from OFAC. While the exam can be taken online while in Syria, the fee must be paid from outside Syria. As such, people have to ask friends and relatives living in other countries to make the payment for them, a significant obstacle due to the difficulty of conducting wire transfers in the country.Computer science students and software engineers are also unable to access some essential services offered by Microsoft's GitHub, the world's most-used tool for software development.On top of all that, at a moment when much of the rest of the world is relying on digital tools to survive a pandemic, Syrians are also unable to access other online services, such as Amazon Books and Zoom, that have been crucial for online learning elsewhere.We Need Better Legal FrameworksPeople under military rule are essentially "Stateless" and should be provided opportunities to integrate into the global economy rather than kept out. The rationale for comprehensive sanctions seems to be that any money flowing into a country with a military dictator will end up in the dictator's hands. However, this is not always the case - and allowing people a way to make a living and to educate themselves, independent of the ruling class, is likely to be in everyone's interests in the long run.Raise the Voices is an International human rights project that supports victims and their families.

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posted at: 12:00am on 03-Sep-2021
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Indie Game Dev Decides To Leave Industry Due To Steam Returns On Short Game

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It has now been over six years since Valve finally put in a refund policy for video games purchased on its Steam platform. At the time of its announcement, I was very much in favor of this move by Valve, given how previously the prospect of buying games on the platform was laughably tilted in favor of publishers and developers. On top of that, a whole bunch of the outcry from publishers and developers over the policy seemed to mostly center around it existing at all, meaning such concerns were mostly just requests to go back to the one-sided policies that favored them. Some developers even saw large numbers of refunds as a good thing, arguing that those refunds were likely largely from people that never would have tried their games out if a potential refund weren't in place.But going way back to that first post over its announcement, one concern brought up by developers seemed legit. Given that the refund policy required the buyer to have bought the game within the past two calendar weeks and to have not played more than two hours of it, well, what about very short games that can be completed well within that timeframe?That exact scenario has now impacted one indie developer such that it is quitting the game development industry altogether.

Summer of ’58 is the latest first-person horror title from indie developer Emika Games, which was released in July and features a video blogger investigating an abandoned and supposedly haunted Russian children’s camp – which of course goes very badly indeed. At £6.19/$6.92 on Steam it’s a cheap purchase even full-price, and it’s currently 23% off.The game’s Steam page makes it very clear that Summer of ’58 only has an average play-time of around 90 minutes. However, according to Emika Games, Summer of ’58 has received “a huge number of returns” – despite being rated ‘very positive’. The developer blames this on the fact that its game “does not reach two hours of playing time” – under Steam’s return policy, any game under two hours can be refunded.
As a result, Emika Games announced on Twitter that it is leaving the games industry entirely for an "indefinite time".Now, we could have a discussion about whether this is an overreaction or not. We could talk about how Steam's refund policy is completely public, meaning that Emika Games knew what it was getting into when it put its 2 hour game on the platform. We could talk about business models and all the other ways the game could have been sold to the public other than via Steam, or other ways the developer could have made money from it.But whatever side of those arguments you'd want to come down on, it wouldn't change the simple fact that this is an obvious flaw within Steam's refund policy. And, frankly, it's one that developers and industry commentators saw coming a mile away. Hell, in my first post on the announcement, I managed to come up with a simple solution to this myself.
It might be an even better solution to simply allow game-makers to have options on the game-time of their refund policy. Say, two hours, five hours, or thirty minutes. Then consumers could decide for themselves if less game-time was worth the risk of purchase. I imagine that would create more administrative work on Steam's end, but it ought to keep the indies happy.
It seems Steam decided not to keep the indies happy. And now one of them is leaving not just Steam, but the entire industry. Why? Because Steam caters primarily to the AAA publishers? That's probably part of it. Because Steam didn't want to give up that kind of control over its policies and platform to developers? Probably another part of it. Because this would have created work for Steam that it didn't want to do? Likely yet another part of it.But whether it is one of those explanations or the trifecta, a good indie gaming scene means this policy has to be altered to make it workable for those making shorter games.

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posted at: 12:00am on 03-Sep-2021
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