An introduction to internet filtering

Synopsis:

Written for a cover mounted booklet in early 2004, this article explains the type of internet filtering options that are available to parents, and the issues they should consider when choosing a way of selecting what their children can see online.

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Few would deny that the internet can be a tremendously useful tool for all manner of things, including helping children to learn. But it's equally true that amongst all the really useful things out there is an alarming amount that we'd rather not have appear on our screens ? and certainly not have our children see.

While you could sit and watch everything your children do on the computer, that's often not terribly practical. You can tell them to be careful online, and make sure they can talk to you about unsavoury things they come across, but wouldn't it be simpler if you could ensure that they don't see some of the worst excesses of the net?

For smaller children, it might even be helpful if you could restrict what they can do online to just looking at a few sites that you know are suitable.

And of course, it's not just the web itself that can cause problems. Chat rooms, while useful for meeting the electronic equivalent of pen pals, or talking with family around the world, can also be a cause for concern. It's all too easy to accidentally give out private information like addresses or phone numbers, or send a file with confidential work information somewhere where it shouldn't go.

Filtering software can solve all of these problems, by keeping an eye on what's happening on your computer, and intervening to stop anything 'inappropriate.' Some of the packages we've looked at just concentrate on web browsing, while others will also keep an eye on online chats, email, internet file swapping and just about everything else that's done on your computer, down to only allowing access to certain programs.

When you're deciding what sort of package you need, you need to think about how much control you want over what's done with your computer. It's also worth bearing in mind that some ISPs, like AOL, offer their own built in filtering, which can also restrict who you children can chat with, or what sites they can visit, without buying another program.

It's also important to find out how well packages fit with the way you use your computer; for example, if you have Windows XP you might have set up a separate user name for each member of your family, but some of the filtering packages we tested don't work with the Windows user names, instead requiring people to set their name with a separate program and password, which could be confusing for some users.

You also need to decide what you want to do if someone does try to do something 'forbidden.' Do you want the computer to refuse to let them carry on, or just to display a warning, or perhaps to simply note silently what's happening, and let you know later, so you can have a sensible conversation with your children?

There are even options in many of the programs we've looked at to limit the number of hours of internet use each day, hopefully stopping your children from spending all their time online. But what happens if they're busy trying to find the answer to a homework question and the time is up? And if you have a more than one computer, sharing a connection to the net, will they all be protected, or just one of them?

In choosing a filtering program, then, there are a lot of things to bear in mind, and there may not be a solution that's right for everyone. You need to think about how you and your family use the computer before taking the plunge and installing a filter.

Whatever restrictions you want to impose on the use of your computer, there are programs reviewed in the following pages that will help with it, and go some way to ensuring that you and your children are protected from the worst of the net. But it's important to bear in mind too that the programs we've looked at are just helpers ? no net filtering can ever be 100% accurate, and it's equally important to talk openly about what people have seen on the internet, and to follow sensible guidelines on safe surfing.

How net filters work

One of the most important things to remember about net filtering is that it's never going to be completely accurate. Filters work in various ways ? some will scan the text on a web page, looking for 'forbidden' words. That can mean that a medical page, for example, might be blocked if it uses certain words.

Other systems rely on a database of sites that have been checked, which means you have to put your trust in the people who do the checking, and hope they have the same values as you, and that they keep their lists up to date ? what do you do for a site that's not in the list? Is it good or bad? And if two sites, one good and one bad, share the same computer, often both can be blocked.

Another alternative is for a web site to include a 'ratings' file, which indicates the levels of sex, violence, nudity, swearing and so forth that it contains. And that means trusting the site author has been honest in following the rating guidelines.

And there are systems too that combine elements of all these approaches, weighting them according to their own rules, or your preferences, before deciding if you can see a page.

Ultimately, all filters are a compromise; it's up to you to find the one that fits your views best.

End of article.

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