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Isn't It Wonderful?*

You're being watched.
    Harold Finch, Person of Interest

Off-topic alert: This article is outside the bounds of my usual article material of photography and related travel/photo locations, subjects, technologies, and similar topics. Next month I'll return to more familiar territory.

Web ads: annoying; in-your-face flashy; sometimes loud; popping up to cover what you're trying to read, which is the very reason you've visited a site in the first place. Sometimes the shear number appearing on a page makes it hard to find the page's intended content. You dismiss an ad only to have it reappear seconds later. In-app ads generally are no different. The good news is, our brains have learned to largely tune them out. One can visit a site, read an article or follow the page's content, and realize later the ads weren't noticed. But these pesky, uninvited invaders are worse than annoying; they consume your digital bandwidth. If you pay by the gigabyte, some of your money is spent displaying intrusive ads you didn't ask for. Worse, however, is the loss of privacy; many ads track the pages you visit, the links you click or tap, and even your physical location. You're being watched, without your permission or knowledge, even when you tap or click nothing on the page. This is wrong.

Pi-hole logo

Ad blockers can help. These typically are add-ons (or extensions) to your browser, and may be automatically installed along with the browser itself. Adblock Plus® (ABP) is a popular extension available for all of the major browsers, and is also offered as a stand-alone browser for Android and iOS devices. ABP is easy to set up and can be tuned via white-listing, adding block lists, etc. It is also easily detectable by the sites you visit, which will raise warnings that desired content may be blocked. Some sites refuse to allow access if a blocker is detected, and will cover the page with a notice to that effect. (You can sometimes reveal the content by switching your browser to reader view.) Except for these notices you may not be aware you're using a browser-based ad blocker.

As you'd expect, these ad blockers must be set up on every computer or other device you use. In my household, with just two of us, we have several devices capable of browsing the Web (and displaying ads), including a couple of desktop computers, a laptop, three iPads, an iPhone, and an Android phone. We also have an Apple TV and an old, rarely-used Kindle Fire. Setting up and maintaining an ad blocker on all of these things would be a big job, and isn't possible on some of them. What if there were a “whole-house” ad blocking tool? There is, of course, a variety of these things. You could install and configure a dedicated firewall (hardware). Many routers have site-blocking capabilities. Setting these things up to make a substantial difference can be onerous, and you'll be chasing a moving target, constantly adding to their block lists when you find new ads creeping into your Web browsing.

Then there's the Pi-hole®, a little hardware device billed as “A black hole for Internet advertisements.” Connect this to your network†, and you've got ad blocking for every device, wired or wi-fi, on your network, including those of visiting friends and family. This sounds promising!

†If you have a router or any combination device that contains a router, you have a network. The Pi-hole connects via cable to that device.

Ads-Be-Gone

My R-Pi, micro SD card, and case 'kit' with fan and power supply

My R-Pi, micro SD card, and case 'kit' with fan and power supply.

I first heard about the Pi-hole in 2017. A Raspberry Pi (R-Pi), a low-cost credit-card-size computer for “makers” and others who like to invent and tinker, is used to run a Linux operating system (kernel) and the open source Pi-hole software. The software can run on other Linux devices, but for my purposes the R-Pi seemed the best approach. One buys the R-Pi, a micro-SD memory card, and a power supply of the common micro-USB wall-wart variety. Using a procedure that's largely automatic the Linux kernel is installed on the card, and then the Pi-hole software. Connect to your network, and enjoy nearly ad-free browsing. This sounds complicated, but it's really quite easy, and there's no shortage of Web sites with instructions. No soldering, no electronics knowledge required. You can do everything needed from your computer; depending on whether you decide to include a case for your R-Pi (optional) you may not even need a screwdriver. At the end of this article I'll provide a few links that helped me.

For reasons I don't recall, I didn't build a Pi-hole, and mostly forgot about it. Then a few weeks ago I came across another story about the Pi-hole, and decided to make one. I ordered a Pi 3 Model B+, a 32Gb micro-SD card, and a case “kit” I'd seen in one of the how-to articles. The case kit included the power supply and a fan, which I suspect isn't necessary. I considered my total cost, at about $60.00 US, to be a bargain for a fun, and possibly useful, project. Skip the case kit and you can spend far less, especially if you've a suitable power supply of the sort used to charge a smart phone. You can also use cheaper Pi boards like the Pi Zero.

I like to tinker, and wrote briefly about that in the middle of a 2011 article. I'm by no means a network guru, but I found the project quite easy to assemble, configure, and install. When completed, the Pi-hole is connected to your network (via cable is best for reliability), and then the DNS (domain name server) setting in the router must be changed to point to the Pi-hole's IP address. For most people the hard part will be changing this router setting, and it's really not difficult (again, plenty of instructions on the Web). With that out of the way, you're done.

Pi-hole in Action

The Pi-hole 'live' in my wiring closet.

The completed Pi-hole 'live' in my wiring closet, DSL modem in the background. The metal 'legs' and rubber feet are my own addition.

The Pi-hole is little more than an invisible brick on your network. Boring. But for most households it will be a busy little box, and your Web browsing experience will be better, and perhaps faster and cheaper, for it. The Pi-hole provides an excellent graphical “dashboard” rich with information about what it and your networked devices are doing, and tells you when updates are available for the Pi-hole software. This is important, as security and other improvements are made on a regular basis. The dashboard runs as a series of Web pages with which you interact via your computer or mobile browser app, just like any other site.

The graphs and tabular data keep you on top of what the Pi-hole is doing. Bottom line, our Web browsing is cleaner, quieter, and perhaps just a bit more private.

The Pi-hole isn't perfect. YouTube ads aren't completely blocked. Some of your devices may have a DNS setting that's hard-coded into them and not easily changed, so the Pi-hole has no affect on them. The Pi-hole does nothing for you when you are traveling and away from your home network. But in my opinion the Pi-hole is well worth making and managing. Looking through the Pi-hole's query log, which ironically lets me track those who'd track me, is very satisfying!

Without Ads, Who Pays?

The Pi-hole 'live' in my wiring closet.

Front view of the Pi-hole in my wiring closet.

The Pi-hole is great, but comes at a cost. Many Web sites and the services we get from them are free because advertisers help pay for them. Those sites are fueled by ads, and by site visitors who click or tap through ads and then sometimes make a purchase. When that happens the site's owner or other connected party receives a small fee. It's not much, and for many sites doesn't come close to paying the expenses let alone earning the owner a living. Methods and processes are a bit different for giant corporations, mainstream news sites, etc., where considerably more revenue is generated by ads. Block the ads, you block the revenue for both the little guy and Big Web Corp.

It's a concern. We certainly don't want the sites we like and perhaps depend on to vanish for lack of funding. On the other hand, ads are all of the bad things mentioned at the top of this article. We each have to decide how we want to handle this. “To hell with them, they drive me crazy, I'm blocking them all,” is one approach. Another is to white-list (that is, set the Pi-hole to allow) specific sites you frequent so ads there will appear. Yet another is to block everything and then subscribe to or otherwise financially support your oft-visited sites. The decision is ours, as it should be.

Advertisers could help by making their ads less intrusive, minimizing their consumption of your bandwidth, and asking you to opt-in rather than force us to build devices to keep them out. And invisible trackers shouldn't be permitted, period.

Speaking of paying for things: The open source Pi-hole software is free, but the project is funded in part by donations from people like me (and, I hope, you) who use it and find it adds value to their Web browsing. Pi-hole is a remarkable effort; if you use it, please support it.

*I'm very happy with the Pi-hole. As Vincent Price asked, “Isn't it wonderful?” Yes. Yes it is.

Some sites I found helpful:

Below is a list of links to reviews, articles, and other information I found useful when setting up my Pi-hole. As always with a list of links, these sites may change or disappear over time, breaking the links. If you find a broken link, please let me know. You can always use your favorite search site to find more information.

February, 2019

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