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A Guide to Internet Blockers and Filters

Young online surfers are bound to run into content they should not see, especially since the Internet is an environment where anything goes. An innocent misspelling of a word can lead to a graphic display of pornography. Parents should take the necessary precautions to monitor the activity of children online. An effective method to monitor a child’s use of the Internet is to use Internet blocking and filtering software, known as parental control software, to filter out objectionable content before it reaches young eyes and ears.
 
 Features to Consider

Internet filtering software packages come in all shapes and sizes. Some packages over-block or under-block content, and what’s good for one family may not be suitable for another.

Parents should consider an Internet filter that:

  • Manages access to Internet content.
  • Blocks the display of personal information.
  • Blocks the ability to download unauthorized material.
  • Manages a child’s access to instant messaging (IM), group chats or chat rooms, newsgroups, and other forms of online communication.
  • Controls a child’s online time.
  • Offers password protection to prevent children from altering or messing with the controls.
  • Logs or provides a record of websites visited.
  • Automatically downloads updates to keep blocked content lists current.
  • Offers anti-spyware capabilities, pop-up blocking, and IP address cloaking.
  • Offers customized filtering unique to each family member.
  • Closes ports to outside intrusion.
  • Offers peer-to-peer blocking.
  • Offers flexibility on multiple computer or single computer platforms.

Parents should choose user-friendly programs that are easy to install and easy to use. Purchasing a complicated package that has all the latest bells and whistles defeats the purpose when parents can’t manipulate or understand all the great features.


Types of Internet Filters

Internet filtering software uses algorithms, or patterns, that check website addresses and pages for images or words that depict graphic violence, have sexual content, contain racial slurs or epithets (or other related hate content), and other content deemed inappropriate by parents (political web sites, gambling and alcohol-related sites). There are three distinct types of Internet filters.

Black List Filters

Black list filters are the most popular types of Internet blocking software. A website is added to a black list (“bad” list) that keeps track of content with objectionable words and images. When a user tries to access the website address on their browser, the software compares the address to the addresses on the list. If there is a match, the users are denied access to the requested website.

White List Filters

White list filters allow access only to “good” sites on the list while denying access to websites not on the list. White list filters are the most restrictive blockers.

Keyword or Content Filters

Keyword or content lists scan websites for the presence of specific words, phrases, or images that appear on the restricted list. Access to a website is denied if the keyword or content matches any words on the list. Because of the specificity of the filter, these programs often deny access to websites that have acceptable content.

Content Rating Systems

Webmasters provide a classification of a website based on its content. Website classifications are voluntary and are based on the web developer’s description of their online content.


Which Package Do I Want?

Before purchasing any Internet filtering packages, find out what levels of protection your Internet Service Provider (ISP) provides, and decide what your family needs. Things to take into consideration are the ages of the users, defining what is and what is not acceptable, and deciding on the level of blocking needed.

Some ISPs build filtering into their software programs so that you won’t need to spend an extra dime. ISPs such as Time Warner’s Roadrunner, AOL., Earthlink, and MSN offer free software packages to subscribers with basic firewall capabilities. All you need to do is set up the software and determine the appropriate levels of access for each family member. For example, Roadrunner offers the Computer Associates’ eTrust® Internet Security Suite ($69.95) which comes with antivirus, anti-spam, pop-up blocking and firewall capabilities. The program also regularly downloads and installs automatic updates. The package is free to Time Warner Internet subscribers, and can be downloaded from http://content.rr.com/rdrun/feat_security.htm. AOL also provides parental control software which requires its young members to get parent-approved screen names.

If your ISP does not offer effective filtering programs, consider checking out the products that have been tested and evaluated by the Consumers Union, publisher of the Consumer Reports Guides. Their website provides a great list of effective software filters. Among their picks are:

  • Safe Eyes (www.SafeBrowse.com, $49.95 per year for up to three computers) is one of the top-rated Internet filtering programs, received the Editor’s Choice rating by PC Magazine, and was top-rated by Consumer Reports. This package provides flexible content controls, web and IM logging, limits online time, tracks usage by family members, and controls access to online communications programs and peer-to-peer programs. Access violations are communicated to parents by text messages, emails, or by phone. Safe Eyes uses keyword filtering.
  • Microsoft’s Parental Control 9.1 (www.microsoft.com, $29.99 per year) received the second highest ratings by Consumer Reports. This web-based program allows parents to assign privileges by user and filter content according to the user, as well as provide Internet activity reports. Parents control access to contacts in online communications and blogs. This software works with Windows XP and will come standard with the next release of the Windows operating system.
  • ContentProtect (www.contentwatch.com, $34.99 per year) is one of the more feature-rich packages and contains remote management and reporting capabilities so that parents can monitor their child’s activity while away from home. Filtering is dynamic; content that is blocked due to the presence of keywords during one moment may be unblocked later in the day. The product has a user-friendly interface and provides effective filtering on national and international sites.
  • CyberPatrol (www.surfcontrol.com, $39.95 per year) offers good filtering control based on keywords and content. The program logs online time and reports Internet activities, blocks IMs, and is customizable for individual users. However, the program is not as user friendly as some of the other programs described.

It’s important to remember that while Internet filters are effective in limiting what children see and do online, these tools are not foolproof, and hackers are always on the prowl to break the tool. Parents should take an active role in monitoring online activity to let children know which behaviors are or are not appropriate while web surfing. Communication coupled with these external programs is the best defense parents can have towards protecting their children online.

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