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Digital advertising industry: Inside the brotherhood of Pi-hole ad blockers

Most ad blockers have to be installed on individual devices and work only in web browsers, but Pi-hole blocks ads across an entire network, including in most apps


Ad blockers

Anyone who works in the $200 billion should be scared of people like Mark Drobnak, because the ad blocker he uses is way more powerful than yours. The college freshman says it feels as though everyone at Rochester Institute of Technology, from his roommate to his professors, has installed some way to ward off online ads. Drobnak is one of the die-hards who goes further, working with a handful of comrades to build what they call “a black hole for advertisements.” His parents say the one he built them works great.

Pi-hole (as in “shut your…”) is a free, open source software package designed to run on a Raspberry Pi, a basic computer that’s popular with DIYers, fits in the palm of your hand, and retails for about $35. Most have to be installed on individual devices and work only in web browsers, but Pi-hole blocks ads across an entire network, including in most apps. (Two big exceptions, both for technical reasons, are YouTube and Hulu.) It can’t block ads inside Facebook, but it can stop Facebook from following you around the web. It’ll let you play Bejeweled without seeing ads between games, watch Mr Robot ad-free in the USA app, stream NPR with silence in place of the sponsor messages, and avoid the banner ads that have become common on internet-connected TVs. If friends come over and connect to your Wi-Fi, it’ll block ads for them, too.

Drobnak discovered Pi-hole in high school in 2015, after he and his siblings had already used their Raspberry Pi to play tic-tac-toe, program an elaborate light show, and monitor their respective addictions to electronics. The ad blocker, created by a Minnesota programmer named Jacob Salmela, was 2 years old and still fairly rudimentary. Less than a month after installing it at home, Drobnak hacked together a web interface to let users more easily block or whitelist sites. Two months later, Salmela invited him to join a tiny, all-volunteer development team. “Ads are annoying,” Drobnak says. “Pi-hole gives you control over that.”

About 18 percent of US web users have an ad blocker, says PageFair , a company that helps advertisers find technical ways to work around the software. (Its estimates are among the more conservative ones.) Outside the US, the numbers are more dramatic. penetration is 24 percent in Canada, 29 percent in Germany, and 39 percent in Greece, according to PageFair. The practice is growing fastest on mobile devices in Asia, where data allowances are typically lower. In Indonesia, 58 percent of users block mobile ads. “In the early days, it was privacy activists and people who had an objection to capitalism in principle,” says Sean Blanchfield, chief executive officer of PageFair. “These days, it’s just average people.”

Only a few years ago, even people who hated ads saw ad-blocking software as akin to stealing. But online advertising has grown so predatory that while blocking is estimated to cost publishers billions of lost revenue a year, it’s started to seem less like robbery than self-defense: Ads slow devices, eat up data plans, and sometimes deliver malware. Meanwhile, the industry is building ever-more-detailed dossiers on every user based on web habits.

Among other things, the online advertising business model has incentivized clickbait—and worse—at enormous scale. Facebook and YouTube figure out how to make people spend more time on their sites to maximise ad inventory. This has abetted the spread of fake news, violent children’s content, and Logan Paul.

Enforcement of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which requires companies to get consent before tracking users, is set to begin on May 25. And with members of Congress grumbling, Silicon Valley, which has ignored complaints about invasive ads for decades, is beginning to acknowledge the scope of the problem. Google and Apple have added features to their browsers that limit the most intrusive and invasive ads. In response to its Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has taken steps to limit its rampant data-sharing and also ended partnerships with companies that combine online profiles with offline credit card transactions, public records such as voter registration and home purchases, and store loyalty programs.

First Published: Thu, May 10 2018. 20:46 IST