Internet filtering (Family Safety)
An Internet filter is hardware or software that restricts the information that is delivered over the Internet. Filters can greatly reduce the flow of harmful content onto your computer.
Filters can be installed on the servers of an Internet Service Provider or proxy service, as part of a local area network, or on individual computers. They can block access to websites, e-mail, chat, or other Internet-based communications based on category, site, or content.
Why get a filter?
For many years the Brethren have warned us of the dangers that accompany the Internet, and have counseled us to employ some technological barriers to the unending flow of filth that permeates the otherwise wonderful and extremely useful virtual world of the Internet. Recall President Hinckley’s warning in 2002, when he said: “Guard your homes. How foolish it seems to install bars and bolts and electronic devices against thieves and molesters while more insidious intruders stealthily enter and despoil”, or more recently when Elder Oaks told us in April conference, 2005: “We must also act to protect those we love. Parents install alarms to warn if their household is threatened by smoke or carbon monoxide. We should also install protections against spiritual threats, protections like filters on Internet connections.”
Do filters work?
A common question that arises is whether Internet filters really work. The answer depends on what you are attempting to accomplish with the filter. If you are attempting to prevent accidental access to inappropriate content, then most filters can be considered successful.
Many filters also have other features, such as time controls, chat logging, reporting and other useful capabilities. All of these features help keep our family safe, and help provide us with more information regarding how our computers are being used. From this perspective, it would be safe to say that filters work.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of installing a filter is the false sense of security that it provides. Most teenagers can get around just about any filter if they really want to, and parents need to know how this is done so they can watch for the warning signs. Also, be sure to use the tools that the filter provides, such as usage reports, blocked site reports, etc. A filter is not a silver bullet, and it is not a set-it-and-forget-it solution.
Increasing individual accountability is one of the most effective ways of filtering content. It is a good practice to place the computer in a public place, and to limit the use of the Internet to times that others are around. Windows Vista/7 and Mac OS X offer time limits on internet access, as do most filters. Many home routers now also offer availability schedules for protecting non-computer devices.
The only fool-proof filter is, as President Faust once explained, the personal moral filter. "As the traffic on the communications highway becomes a parking lot, we must depend more and more on our own personal moral filters to separate the good from the bad."
An analogy might be helpful as we discuss the different filter technologies. Let’s consider the content on the Internet to be analogous to mail that is delivered to your home. A filter could be thought of as a guard that is hired to sort through your mail before it is delivered to you. This guard could be asked to remove any junk mail, or even mail from any individual or company, and set it aside so you don’t have to deal with it. The guard would then review each piece of mail before handing it to you.
Filters work in similar fashion, sorting through the content that your computer requests, and preventing certain content from entering your home. To understand the different filter technologies, let’s relate them to this guard, and where he might intercept our mail before giving it to us. There are three basic technologies used for filters today, namely:
- This is the most common filter, and it comes in the form of an application that is downloaded from the Internet or purchased in a store, then installed on your computer. The filter interjects itself into the communication chain between the applications on that computer and the Internet so it can watch the communication, and perform its guard duty. Software filters are usually the most robust, and offer the greatest level of protection – not only from pornography, but from other dangers as well (such as online predators, online gaming, etc).
- In our analogy, this option is like putting a guard at your front door. A software filter looks at data as it arrives on your machine. It is important to note that because the filter is actually installed on your computer, the bad content will exist on your computer, but the filter intercepts it before it displays on the screen.
- When you have a broadband Internet connection, or an always-on connection, there is a physical device that you must use to connect your computer to the Internet. This may be a cable modem or a DSL router; it all depends on what type of broadband connection you have purchased. Some of these routers, or modems, have built-in software that filters the Internet. This is an example of a hardware filter – the hardware device that brings the Internet into your home can be configured so that it will filter the content before it arrives on your computer. You do not need to install anything on your computer; the mere fact that your computer uses this device to access the Internet ensures that the content is filtered. An example of a hardware filter is Router Limits.
- This option is similar to the guard standing at your mailbox, intercepting the mail directly from the mailman before it is placed in your mailbox. The bad content is intercepted before it ever arrives on your computer.
- Another option is to use a DNS service such as OpenDNS to provide filtering. This provides a free option with many of the benefits of having a hardware solution, without having to purchase additional hardware because it will probably work with your existing home networking hardware.
- All that is required is to update the primary and secondary dns entries at the router to point to the opendns servers, and then open an account on open dns, which allows you to set your filtering options for your home network. Directions for doing so are on the open dns website.
- This option has the advantage of filtering all of the devices in the home; including the computers, cell phones, TVs, game consoles, etc. Any device that would connect to your router, either by wire or wireless. Cell phones connected to the Internet via a cell tower will not be filtered.
- Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will offer filtering as part of their service. If they don’t, you could sign up with a service on the Internet, called a “proxy,” that will filter your content on the Internet before sending it to your home. Since this works on the Internet, there is nothing to install on your computer. If this service is offered by your ISP, then there is usually nothing to configure – you simply turn this service on with your ISP, and it filters all content. If you are using a proxy service, then you must configure your individual computer to use the proxy filter. It doesn’t necessarily install anything on your computer, but you do need to ensure that the computer is configured to use that proxy. Like hardware filters, Internet proxy filters are usually simplistic, and would not have the robust features of a software filter.
- Continuing our analogy of a guard watching our mail, this would be comparable to our guard standing at the post office and inspecting each piece of mail before it is loaded onto the mail truck for delivery.
VPN (Virtual Private Network)
- A VPN solution is becoming more popular today as more and more devices travel outside the home. Tablets and smartphones are making it increasingly difficult to filter the devices children use to connect to the internet. A software filter on a computer does not protect these smart devices. A hardware filter (like on a router) can protect these devices if they are connected to the WiFi home network, but not when 3G/4G mobile network is turned on. A DNS or proxy filter is hard to configure on a smart device, easy to bypass, and often doesn't filter network traffic from apps. There are apps which attempt to protect a smart device, but they often require using a custom internet browser and do not protect other apps. A VPN filter is really the best solution for smart devices today because it protects all internet traffic (even from apps installed on the smart device). A VPN filter can also be used on a home router or directly on a compuer. Some examples of VPN-based filters include Router Limits, NetAngel, Disney Circle Go, and PageClean.
How to select a filter
Now that we understand the different types of filters, how can we determine which is the best type of filter for our home? There are some simple questions that you can ask yourself that will help you determine which filter will best fit your families’ needs. They are:
1. What devices are you trying to protect?
Many devices today are Internet-enabled, and would benefit from protection. It is important to keep in mind that we are not just talking about desktop computers, but also any laptops, gaming consoles, set-top TVs or any other Internet-enabled device in your home that uses your network to access the Internet. Remember that cell phones do not fall into this category, since they use the cell phone network for their Internet access. Just about everything else that accesses the Internet in your home uses your home network to do so.
If you have several different devices that connect to the Internet, it is probable that you have a broadband connection. You might want to investigate the hardware solution first, since some of these devices cannot install software. For example, many game consoles can access the Internet via a wireless connection in the home, but you cannot install any software on these devices. If you are able to use a hardware filter, then the device will automatically be filtered simply by the fact that it connects to the Internet through your hardware device.
2. What operating systems (OS) are run in your home?
An operating system is the application that you interact with to operate the computer. It is what “boots up” the computer and what you log into for access to that computer (although not all operating systems require a login). The most common operating systems are the several versions of Windows from Microsoft Corp (Windows XP, Vista, and a few older versions), and a couple of versions for the Mac from Apple. There are a few other popular OS’s, but they are usually only installed by people very familiar with technology, and thus outside of the audience group for this article.
As a rule of thumb, if you have multiple operating systems in your home, you probably want to consider a hardware filter. A hardware filter doesn’t require direct interaction with the OS and you don’t have to worry about whether it will operate in the same way on all of your computers. However, there are a couple of software filters on the market today that support both Windows and Mac operating systems. If you only have two or three computers to filter and you have a heterogeneous operating system environment, you may want to do just a little bit of research before deciding that a software filter is not for you. Remember that software filters tend to be more robust, and protect from more dangers than hardware and Internet proxy filters.
In the latest shipping versions of operating systems for Windows and Mac, there are built-in filters that you can use for free as part of the system. They are not as robust as some of the commercial filters that you would purchase, but they are certainly better than no filter at all. Before you purchase a solution, check to see if you are running the latest version of the operating system, and whether the built-in filter will suit your needs.
3. Do you have laptop computers in your home?
If you have laptops in the home, it is highly likely that these laptops access the Internet when away from home as well. People can access wireless networks in school, in libraries, on buses, and in many other “hotspots” around town. If you want to be sure that these laptops are protected when away from home as well as when accessing the Internet in your home, then you would want a software filter or an Internet proxy filter. The reason is that the hardware filter would only protect the laptops when they connect to the Internet through the hardware device in your home.
4. Do you want to prevent inadvertent access, or are you trying to stop someone from their deliberate attempts to view inappropriate material?
If you are trying to prevent inadvertent access, then any filter will do. If, however, you are trying to prevent someone from deliberately deactivating the filter to seek out inappropriate content, then you want to look at the more sophisticated commercial software filters. Generally speaking, hardware filters are harder to get around than software filters, but most of the commercial software filters on the market today are built so that you have to have quite a bit of technical expertise in order to subvert them. The free filters tend to be easier to subvert as well.
5. How do you connect to the Internet?
If you use a dial-up connection to the Internet, then you typically would not have a gateway in your home, so a hardware solution would not be appropriate for your environment. Instead, you would look for a software filter or an Internet proxy filter.
6. Are you concerned with accessing pornography only, or with other dangerous activity, such as Internet predators, chat rooms, etc?
Generally speaking, both hardware and Internet proxy filters are more rudimentary, and with a few exceptions will focus primarily on preventing access to pornography or other inappropriate content. They will not necessarily log chat sessions, provide usage reports based on each individual in the home, or any of the other more sophisticated filtering technologies that a commercial software filter would provide. If you are interested in this level of detailed reports, or in the other social-networking, chat room, instant messaging features, you should consider a software filter.
7. Do you need to restrict the times that the Internet is used?
Some filters have time controls built into them, so that you can turn off access to the Internet during certain times. If you do not want anyone to access the Internet from midnight to 6 am, for example, most software filters would have the ability to enforce this, whereas most hardware filters would not. Those hardware filters that do allow this would normally be an all-or-nothing solution: in other words, with a software filter you could allow some people to access the Internet at certain times, and others would be more restricted. With a hardware filter, everyone has the same time restrictions.
8. How do you want to handle over-blocking?
Given the current state of filter technology, you can rest assured that you will be blocked when you shouldn’t necessarily be. There will be times when you attempt to access a site that the filter thinks should be blocked, but you know the site to be OK. This is called over-blocking. With software filters, this is usually trivial to handle, as you can simply enter an administrator password and continue on to the site. With hardware and Internet proxy filters, many times you need to contact the administrator of the filter (like your ISP, for example) and ask them to unblock the site. This usually takes time, and can be a source of frustration.
Where to get more information
Once you have the answers to these questions, you can then start your investigation of which filter is right for you. If you are interested in a hardware filter, it is probably best to go talk to someone in a computer store, or talk to your Internet Service Provider to see what they offer. It may be the case that the hardware device you already have has a filter capability, and you simply need to turn it on.
If you are interested in a software filter, then you need to decide whether you want to purchase a commercial filter, which would have more robust features, or whether you want to find a free solution that will simply protect access to inappropriate content.
Commercial filters are available for around $40 - $60 per computer per year. If you are interested in a commercial filter, you can research on the Internet to find a suitable filter for you.
If you would like a more basic, free version of the software, first look at your operating system. As mentioned above, both of the latest versions of Windows and Mac operating systems have built-in software filters that may serve your needs. There are also free filters available for download that you can find online. Simply search for “free internet filter” to begin your research.
For more information about filters you can use, see below in the "Additional information" section.
There are some good filters that are provided for free, which will provide some protection from pornography. A couple of examples are:
- BrowseControl from CurrentWare. This software allow you to block websites using a blacklist. It also lets you block websites based on categories. Easy to use.
- NetAngel. A cloud-based solution that protects all devices (computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, gaming consoles, etc.) This filter uses blacklists as well as true content filtering (where it scans every webpage for objectionable content). The most unique feature of the NetAngel filter is the instant alerts. A text message is sent to a parent or spouse whenever a site is blocked in realtime. This invites conversations to happen about appropriate internet usage. This service is free when protecting one device or computer. NetAngel also supports specific routers and also sells preconfigured routers to protect your entire WiFi network with a premium subscription.
- FamilyShield from OpenDNS. This is a great option for those who are a bit more technical. It requires some technical ability to install and configure, but protects all WiFi (wireless network) devices in the house, including game consoles. Typically, it does not protect cell phones that are directly connected to the mobile network (3G/4G) rather than to the WiFi.
- Norton Online Family from Norton. This is a great option to keep track of children's internet access and is easy to use and install. It allows the child to send a message to the parent indicating why they wish to access the site. It also does well with social networking sites. It has an easy monitoring system to know what words are being used when searching on the web. But a simple search of everyday terms still can give inappropriate results, even with most of the filtering categories selected. This can be easy to disable for a tech-savvy child.
- FamilyShield Router Configuration Instructions for Open DNS. This provides setup details for the OpenDNS FamilyShield Router, which blocks domains categorized in the OpenDNS system such as Tasteless, Proxy/Anonymizer, Sexuality, Pornography, or Weapons.
For a review of some of these free solutions, as well as paid solutions, please see ProtectFamily.org.