Why did the 16APSK mux at 97°W 3980H disappear?

If you have read some of my previous posts you may have discerned that I am no big fan of any of the free-to-air satellite forums out there. In my opinion most of those sites are run by people who make up arbitrary rules that do not apply equally to all users, and also at least some of them exist specifically to further someone’s commercial interests, and if you happen to say anything negative about a product sold by the dealer that runs the site or another “favored” dealer, you may find that your posts silently disappear, and you may even be banned from the forum. And, if you have been on multiple free-to-air satellite forums, you may have noticed that there is a lot of bad blood between the operators of some of the competing forums (probably in part because some of them are business competitors trying to grab a slice of an ever-shrinking pie). Therefore anything you read on these forums about another forum, particularly if it’s negative commentary, has to be taken with a few grains of salt.

So with that caveat, when the 16APSK mux at 97°W 3980H disappeared earlier this month, some guys in a “hidden” forum on the SatelliteGuys site (note that link will only work if you have been granted access to that forum, and log in to the site) started remarking how coincidental it was that shortly after some other posts had been made on another site, including one where someone had said he was going to contact the uplinker of those channels (a HUGE no-no for anyone that cares about free-to-air satellite), the mux in question disappeared (you can read this thread for more commentary). I’m sorry that I cannot quote specific posts from the SatelliteGuys thread, but it is against their rules to share information on that particular forum outside of the forum, for good reasons.

If I am reading it correctly, the allegation seems to be that a particular dealer, possibly in part because of a long-running feud with the operators of the SatelliteGuys site and some other sites, but mostly because he is selling a rather unattractive package of subscription channels and because few people were buying his package, wanted to see that 16APSK mux go away because he thought people were watching the “free” channels rather than paying him. Now if that is true, my opinion is that if he’d been selling a package of desirable channels at a reasonable price he might have had enough business to satisfy him, but no matter what else may or may not be available, few people are going to buy a package of channels if it doesn’t contain the channels people really want to watch. And also, he probably has lost a lot more business to devices like the Roku and FireTV, and similar Internet-connected devices, and to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. than he’ll ever lose to people watching free satellite channels.

Now, my view from up here in the balcony while munching the popcorn over the last few years has been that the guy offering this service has managed to piss off a lot of people in the free-to-air community. When the thread appeared on SatelliteGuys I was not even sure at first which forum they were talking about, because it had been so long since I’d been to that forum, and one of the reasons I’d stopped visiting there was because of the lack of useful information and because of what I felt to be mudslinging and venom directed at various parties. I’m not saying that none of it was deserved, because I don’t know everything that happens behind the scenes. But apparently this forum is sponsored or in some way linked with the guy selling the subscription service. Anyway, it seemed to me as though a high percentage of threads there were bashing somebody and while sometimes the bashing seemed valid (in that it discussed some of the shortcomings and biases of other sites), it sure did not seem like a very helpful site for the average satellite hobbyist, at least not compared to some of the other sites they were bashing.

One thing I did notice, and honestly felt somewhat offended by, was the notion put forth in some of the posts on that forum that if you want to watch free satellite TV you are a cheapskate, or a pirate, or in some way doing something illegal, and of course nothing could be further from the truth – if it’s not encrypted, you’re allowed to watch it, period (also, I have sunk a lot of money into equipment for this hobby, but that’s beside the point). What I feel would be despicable, though, would be if someone tried to sabotage free satellite TV just because they believed it might help them sell their own package of fairly undesirable channels. I cannot say for sure that is what happened, because I don’t know who was uplinking those channels, or what was the actual motivation that caused them to discontinue the uplink. But that post I linked above sure does not make me want to do business with the company mentioned in the signature block. Personally, and this is just me, I would never do business with that company as long as I live, no matter what they might offer in the future. I am not telling anyone else what to do, but in my opinion anyone who tries to ruin the hobby of receiving free and legal satellite television by contacting an uplinker is not deserving of my business.

Since no one knows for sure why those channels were on the satellite to begin with, no one knows for sure why they disappeared, except of course for the people responsible for the uplink, and so far they aren’t talking. It may have been something completely unrelated, such as a one-year contract that expired and was not renewed. But just the fact that someone might TRY to get those channels removed or encrypted in order to advance their own narrow business interests, whether or not those efforts actually bore any fruit, is enough to lower my opinion of them to the degree that they will never get a penny from me.

TechCrunch article on gamer controversy contains interesting comments about online forums that are also relevant to the Free-To-Air satellite community

I happened to see a link to a TechCrunch article entitled #GamerGate – An Issue With Two Sides.  Now just to be upfront about it, I am not a gamer. The only computer games I have ever played much were Frogger, Apple Panic, Space Invaders, and a few others on my old TRS-80, and later on I played Tetris a bit. To put it simply, I was born just a little too early (some might say way too early) to really get into the whole gaming thing. Because of that, I personally hold no real strong opinions about gaming or the various factions therein, in fact I’m totally ignorant about most of that. I was only vaguely aware that there was some sort of controversy brewing from some of the various Twitter feeds and online forums that I follow.

So when I saw the aforementioned TechCrunch article, I started reading it just to try and understand a bit about what was going on. To be honest, I wasn’t sure why I was reading it, since I have no real interest in the topic. But I think sometimes people do things for a reason that may not at first be apparent (a friend of mine would say they are guided by the universe), because near the end of the article this commentary appears:

Like GamerGate, the issue of online censorship has been simmering for a while. The balance between moderator power and user power in online communities is entirely one-sided. Users have no power to hold their moderators to account, and there is typically no user oversight regarding whose content gets removed and who gets banned.

It’s unclear whether communities like Reddit censor out of a desire for a quiet life, or whether it is the simple product of a moderator’s whims. Either way, it is clear that the system is entirely unaccountable to users.

The article then quotes Slate’s David Auerbach, although it’s unclear what part of this is a quote and what is attributable to the TechCrunch writers:

If you hand power to a small group of people with zero transparency and oversight, mistakes will go un-corrected. People rarely acknowledge mistakes unless there is a mechanism for others to correct them. In many online communities, users have no way of raising issues about moderation without the risk of being banned themselves.

The system is not sustainable. As the actions of moderators become increasingly driven by personal biases, more and more information will accumulate in unmoderated spaces. Meanwhile, those who confine themselves to moderated spaces will become increasingly unaware of the wider picture. The ultimate result is heavily biased groups of people who essentially live in different and mutually opposed realities. Conflict and hatred is inevitable.

Unfortunately this is a huge problem in the online Free-To-Air satellite forums in North America. Each of the forums has their own set of biases and internal guidelines as to what they will allow to be posted, but the truth is that on most forums, users have no say in what is allowed, and moderation is entirely at the whim of the moderator(s), and is at times very subjective. If a moderator gets it in his head that he doesn’t like a particular user, everything that user writes will be scrutinized, whereas if another more favored user writes in a similar vein, their comments are welcomed.

From time to time it seems that a moderator develops a true dislike for a user, and then no further posts from that user appear. Did the user get banned? Is the user being heavily censored? Did he simply leave out of disgust? The other users will never know.

Moderators usually say that their moderation is for some ostensibly good reason, such as “to keep the community friendly” or to keep out talk of piracy. The problem is that what is friendly and unfriendly is very subjective, and appears to be defined differently in the case of different users. Someone who has supported a forum in some way, either through membership or perhaps by slipping a few free product samples to the moderator(s), is likely to get away with saying things that would be deemed “unfriendly” if any other user said them. New users often run afoul of the “no piracy talk” rule simply out of ignorance – they have no idea that a particular receiver that they purchased on eBay or at a flea market was designed as a “pirate” box, and they are simply seeking help without even knowing that they have stumbled across the trip wire that could get them permanently banned. I don’t support signal piracy in any way, but I do think that new users need to be cut a little slack when they may not realize they have committed a foul.

Another problem is that some of the online forums are run by dealers of satellite equipment, and in that case you never know if they are censoring speech that criticizes the products they sell, or that speak favorably of competing products sold by other vendors. Certain dealers seem to be very adverse to any sort of criticism of their products or business practices.

In at least one case, my suspicion is that the moderator is a religious person and got into Free-To-Air satellite in order to get the religious feeds, plus certain other types of programming that specifically interest him. To his credit, he generally doesn’t preach his beliefs in the forums, but I suspect that his religion causes him to hold a very authoritarian worldview, so he sees no problem with censoring posts he doesn’t happen to like. In this case, whatever the stated rules may be, if the moderator doesn’t like your post it will be gone or edited, and if you don’t like it, you may be gone as well.

The one commonality in all these forums is that if a user tries to complain about the style of moderation or the censorship of a specific post, that post will likely also be censored, and my suspicion is that this is the act that causes users to be permanently banned. But none of the other users will ever be aware that it happened. I’m sure some users would prefer not to know, but others might appreciate knowing whether there is a hidden bias in the forums they visit.

In my personal opinion there are no satellite forums in North America that don’t have some type of bias. Sometimes the biases are directly opposing. In one forum, they don’t want you to talk about feeds or channels that don’t appear in certain well-known public listings, out of fear that those feeds and channels might be scrambled (a valid concern, in my opinion). In a different forum, people are encouraged to openly post any feeds or channels they may find, no matter what the consequences. In my opinion, the latter is a very irresponsible position to take. The reason you shouldn’t discuss such feeds openly is because sometimes, if the feed owner finds out that people who are not the intended recipients are viewing such feeds, they will begin to scramble those feeds.

This has happened in the past. For example, a few years ago there was a very popular group of channels from Alaska that carried west coast feeds from all the major networks. Then, as the story goes, some big mouth did the worst thing you can possibly do – he started shooting off his mouth about how he was able to watch football games off the Alaska channels using his satellite dish. His comments came to the attention of the feed owners, and from then on those channels have been scrambled.

So I am not saying that no post should ever be removed – there are very good reasons for removing posts from time to time, but the rules need to be clearly stated. In an ideal world, the decision of whether to remove a post should not be based on the whims or personal likes and dislikes of a moderator. And such decisions certainly ought not to be based on whether a person is a contributor to the forum or a friend of the moderator(s), or whether someone shares the same religion or worldview as the moderator(s).

My suspicion is that the hidden biases and heavy-handed moderation in some of the forums has discouraged some new users from coming into the hobby of Free-To-Air satellite, and has chased away some long-time hobbyists. What I don’t know is how big a problem this actually is. I don’t know whether many users have been affected, or only a few. And that is the problem with censorship – there is no way to know how pervasive it really is, especially when there are only a relative handful of forums covering a topic and they all engage in censorship.

The TechCrunch article contains one other point worth noting:

Critics will argue that someone banned on Reddit or neoGAF can simply go elsewhere on the Internet rather miss the point. Censorship is about denying certain views of an audience. Giving someone the freedom to speak in a deserted forest (or an unvisited website) doesn’t actually mean a great deal.

If there are only a very few satellite forums, and most users only know about one or two of them and maybe only follow one of them regularly, then censorship on one of those forums becomes a much bigger deal than it would be if there were a multitude of such forums. This is not a problem confined to satellite forums, or to Reddit forums – it is also true of many other topical forums where there are few forums covering that topic. I don’t mean to imply that this is a bigger problem in the satellite forums than in many other topical forums on the Internet; I’m just pointing out that the problem does exist and that it does affect the communities we visit.