Using Pi-Hole For Whole-Network Ad Blocking

Internet advertising was once a fairly benign minor annoyance that spiraled into the oft-lampooned dark world of pop-ups on top of pop-ups. In these early years, simple ad-blocking plugins for popular browsers like Netscape Navigator (and its successor, Mozilla Firefox) were enough to keep these nuisances at bay, but as advertising technology got more sophisticated, Web 2.0 became more commercialized, and surveillance capitalism became the business model du jour, ad-blockers have moved from convenience to absolute necessity while simultaneously become more difficult to implement at the browser level.

Most commercial websites now can detect ad-blocker software and refuse to serve content in response. In these cases, it becomes necessary to allow some level of ad servicing–usually through whitelisting specific sites–but this also comes at the extended (and immeasurable) cost of privacy. Advertising networks track users’ movements across the internet and serve consistent ads based on that user’s specific browsing history. In this Brave New World, a user’s very identity is a commodity that must be exchanged in order to participate in society. One must sell their soul in an asymmetrical exchange to merely experience the world outside while the buyer resells the soul indefinitely and reaps exponential profits.

Pi-Hole is an application that adjusts the balance of power back into the hands of the user by allowing ads to be served, but intercepting and dumping them into a “black hole” before being displayed. Additionally, Pi-Hole blocks trackers from “phoning home” by directing their calls into the same virtual black hole, thus allowing the user to retain control over their identity. The result is a cleaner, safer, and more pleasant user experience with faster page load times and less noise in the browsing experience. Granted, Pi-Hole does have a few flaws that are more difficult to work around (such as Google’s first-party tracking), but by-and-large, the application is well-worth the few minutes that it takes to set up.

In my current network arrangement, I have Pi-Hole installed on a Raspberry Pi Zero W plugged into a 5V wall wart and connected to the WiFi. It’s not the fastest arrangement, of course, but it has a very low power consumption and serves my needs at the moment. I have also tried using Pi-Hole installed on an Ubuntu virtual machine in my FreeNAS server, but I noticed that it resulted in a noticeable increase in system resources (and noise, considering the case sits behind my sofa) so I migrated to the Pi. If you have the hardware to spare, I would probably recommend a Pi3B+ or better as the right nexus of speed and power consumption.

Installation on the Pi is fairly straightforward, following the directions of the Pi-Hole website. The most difficult part seems to be arranging the DNS settings on your router (which isn’t altogether difficult, but it doesn’t enjoy the virtue of an automatic installation script). I will put together a setup guide for the FreeNAS instance in a future number, for those who may be inclined (or whenever I upgrade my server and stuff it in an air-conditioned closet).

Pi-Hole is not a silver bullet to stop advertising and privacy-invading browser trackers wholesale, but I do recommend it as another tool in the ever-growing arsenal that users can employ to reclaim some of their own power on the internet. I’m still playing around with the idea of obfuscation, and seeing if it is even worth considering (it probably isn’t, but it may just be for fun), and I have been implementing other changes that have made my life–both online and especially off–better and less stressful than it used to be.

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