Protecting your family online (2)

In our first post we mentioned the importance of knowing the threats presented by the internet, and how these reach your family.  This is the first step for ‘protecting your family online’.   Here we want to discuss:

Step 2: Installing and Configuring Three Essential Tools

To help protect yourself online, all members are asked to use three tools.  Being tools, they are not solutions or to be trusted as perfect.  Like any other tool, they can be used improperly.  Nor does installing these tools absolve us from our parental responsibilities.

Tool 1: Internet Filters

Internet filters are the most common tool for keeping us from accessing inappropriate material.  There are many different internet filters on the market, and some of them are much more effective than others.  Unfortunately all filters will allow some inappropriate material to pass through, and prevent you from accessing some harmless sites.  This is simply due to the nature of internet–there are hundreds of millions of pages of information on the internet, and millions more are added every day.

Some very important considerations when setting up a filter include the ease with which you can bypass it, override a blocked site, turn it off altogether, or uninstall it.  It is also critical that you set it to an appropriate level.  A suitable filter can also block out categories (e.g. Social Networking, sports, gambling) and prevent access to internet browsers that allow you to turn off safe search.

The ideal filter uses dynamic filtering along with URL and keyword filtering.  URL filtering blocks sites with domain names that have been identified and categorized as objectionable.  Keyword filters use certain words and phrases to block sites.  Dynamic filtering uses a much more complex algorithm and evaluates the sites’ content just before it is displayed on your screen.  While it is not always easy to determine if your filter is using dynamic filtering, we strongly recommend you use a filter that uses this method in addition to the simpler URL/keyword blocking.

Filters can be installed on specific devices (i.e. NetNanny) protecting only that device, or protect your entire network by being proxy or ISP based (i.e. iGateWeb).  The benefit of having your filter installed on specific devices is that your laptop or tablet is filtered when connected to a data package or to Wi-Fi provided by your neighbour or a company (e.g. Starbucks).  The benefit of a filter that is ISP based, or proxy based via your router, is that any devices connected to your internet in the home are filtered – including visitors’ devices.  There is usually no clear answer of which method is best for you, and we strongly recommend you use two different filters so that you have both forms of protection.

Two years ago MTAC evaluated a number of different filters and the results showed a very significant range in filtering performance.  The results can be found in the resources section of our website  Many more filters exist than those that were evaluated, and it is difficult to determine the current relevance of these results as small changes to a filtering algorithm can significantly change a filter’s performance.  However, based on these evaluations the RCNA still requires members to use either iGateWeb and/or NetNanny.  Since many of our devices are mobile and have their own data connections, and since wireless tethering/hotspots are easy to implement, we can no longer recommend using only iGateWeb without device specific filters.

A few other filters: Covenant Eyes is appealing because the company provides many excellent resources and has a Christian basis (cf NetNanny, which is secular).  Unfortunately, our evaluation indicates the actual performance of the Covenant Eyes filter is poor and that it cannot be recommended instead of NetNanny or iGateWeb.  K9 Web Protection provides a free filter that appears to be popular (mostly because it is free).  While MTAC has not evaluated this filter, K9 might be a good option to use in conjunction with iGateWeb.  OpenDNS is also a free filter that is set up on your router to provide filtering for everything on your network.  Again, MTAC has not evaluated this filter and it appears to only use URL based filtering.  However, OpenDNS might be a good option to use in combination with NetNanny.

All internet-capable devices, including mobile devices, owned by you and your family members must have a suitable filter.  This implies that for this step in ‘protecting your family online’ you need to research the different options and decide which filters you intend to use.  We understand this can be a very confusing exercise, which is one reason we strongly recommend using NetNanny as the primary filter on all devices.  (NetNanny provides filtering products for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices).  In addition to NetNanny, we strongly recommend using a network wide filter such as iGateWeb or OpenDNS.

Once you have decided on the filters you plan to use, you need to download and install this software onto each device you identified in the first brochure, and on your network router.  The filtering software must also be properly configured for different age levels.  We recommend starting with the filter set as strict as possible to minimize underblocking.  As you begin using the filter and find that strictest setting is unworkable, the settings can be modified as necessary.  Obviously different settings will result for different age groups and users.

Questions and Comments

Do I need a filter if I already have virus and malware protection on my computer?  Yes.  There is a lot of different “protection” software out there—and they are designed for different purposes and different markets.  McAfee, Norton, and Kaspersky provide good tools for keeping viruses from your computer, and allow you to set up parental controls.  But they are not designed for filtering out porn and other objectionable material.  Filtering software (e.g. NetNanny) may not give much in terms of anti-virus protection.  Since such programs are often (but not always) compatible with each other, you are best served using both.  Put bluntly, antivirus/ malware software aims to protect your physical and virtual possessions; filters aim to keep you from sin.

What is a good setting for my filter?   As restrictive as you can work with.  Avoid “adult”, “mature” and “18+” settings, as these tend to be far too open.  For your younger children you can set it much lower (i.e. when you have multiple user accounts, you can give your younger children the most restrictive settings that block all video and social networking sites), and give older children and yourself less restrictive access.

Filters are too restrictive and slow.  This is a myth–most current filters do not significantly delay the time it takes to access a site, and limit over-blocking by dynamically filtering sites rather than by categorically blocking access to them.