Internet Filtering Software


An internet filter is a piece of software, controlled by some authority (such as parents or en employer), that filters websites, accessed using a computer, by keyword or by URL. This is usually for the benefit of children, but more frequently for protecting a work environment against litigation from employees by blocking items that may offend unsuspecting viewers. There is often many criteria for which the filter works, pornography, alternative lifestyles (homosexuality, adultery) , violence, terrorism and others.

The following comments sum up what we feel are the most popular and well known products of a quickly expanding group of internet filtering tools.


Cybersitter 9.0
Cybersitter 9.0 offers the strongest filtering we've seen, as well as good monitoring features. It is easy to use and does an excellent job of defending itself against computer-savvy kids who might try to find ways around the filter. While none of the programs in this roundup block content flawlessly, Cybersitter errs on the conservative side; by default it may block sites you would deem okay, but at least it doesn't let inappropriate content slip through.

Cybersitter relies on an extensive, frequently updated database of sites and word patterns. By default, Cybersitter blocks content related to sex, drugs, hate, and violence, as well as blocking all image searches. But parents can select from 32 content categories—including cults, gambling, file sharing, wrestling, and free e-mail sites—to tailor the filter to their needs. These settings are applied to Web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, and newsgroups. Or you can simply block all instant messaging, newsgroups, FTP access, and file sharing.

Every Internet application is filtered for inappropriate content and personal information that parents have specified. Unlike iProtectYou, whose brute-force approach shuts down the app, Cybersitter just blanks out the bad words that appear in e-mails and instant messages. Of course, if a Web site has offending content, it is blocked.

Cybersitter offers a good stealth mode, letting parents filter and monitor kids' activities without their knowledge. Cybersitter can record both sides of IM sessions, as well as log all sites visited and any violations. This information can then be automatically e-mailed to you in a daily activity report.

Pros:
Probably the best performing tool in this class. Resistant to circumvention. Extensive database of sites and words. Good extra features.
Cons:
Possibly too conservative in restricting sites that should not normally be restricted, but its best to err on this side than the other.


CyberPatrol 6.2

CyberPatrol 6.2 is a solid solution for controlling your children's computer activities. It filters out inappropriate content but lacks monitoring and adequate reporting tools. Thus, it doesn't offer any real insight into what your kids are doing online.

CyberPatrol's default user account provides restrictive filtering without requiring any configuration. It divides words and URLs into 13 categories so you can customize settings for individual users. You create user profiles and set user options in the password-protected CyberPatrol Headquarters. This interface hasn't changed much since the last time we reviewed CyberPatrol, though it includes new tool tips, hints, and information dialogs, all of which make the program easier to use.

Switching between users is a manual process, as CyberPatrol is not aware of Windows user accounts or Windows XP's fast switching. But we like that the program automatically reverts from the current user to the default user after a set period of inactivity. This prevents kids, for example, from using Mom's unrestricted account if she forgets to log off.
CyberPatrol can filter content in any program. Like Cybersitter with its word-blanking feature, CyberPatrol replaces restricted words with strings of periods. The program's category lists are not viewable, though parents can add specific sites to block or allow. For filtering chat sessions, parents can add words or phrases to ChatGuard's restricted-word lists on either a global or per-user basis.

In testing, CyberPatrol blocked most offensive sites we tried to access; only a few mildly risqué sites slipped through. And it wasn't as overzealous as Cybersitter and iProtectYou, though CyberPatrol blocked a page on Staples' site, indicating it had violated the "weapons" filter. Unfortunately, without detailed reports, we can't know what the specific offense was.

CyberPatrol offers several types of alerts, including a diagnostic screen that identifies the offending page and the category it violates. CyberPatrol also offers a stealth mode, which removes the tray icon and displays "Page not found" errors rather than warning messages.

CyberPatrol's time management abilities are particularly strong. The click-and-drag interface lets you quickly set daily or weekly time limits in 30-minute increments. If your child is spending too much time playing games and not enough doing homework, you can limit specific programs on a global or per-user basis.

Pros:
Preconfigured for good quality filtering protection, minimal setup. Good user interface.

Cons:
Lacks some monitoring and reporting functions.

Net Nanny 5.0

Net Nanny (recently acquired by LookSmart) is one of the most recognized names in parental controls. The latest version, Net Nanny 5.0, offers a decent toolset, including cookie and pop-up blocking, time management, and program controls. But despite its name recognition, it is far from the most effective solution in this market.

For parents just cutting their teeth on computers, the simple installation and automatic creation of a default user offers immediate protection without requiring configuration of a lot of settings. Unfortunately, we found it fairly easy to access explicit images without being blocked.

Net Nanny is the only product in this roundup that lets you view its built-in lists of permitted and restricted sites and words. Parents can add to either list. But unlike Cybersitter, Net Nanny doesn't categorize sites; instead the blocked list is just one big pool of restricted URLs, making it difficult to customize settings for individual users.

Word filtering works on Web browsers, IRC chat sessions, unencrypted e-mail messages, and newsgroups. (Filtering does not work, however, on AOL Instant Messenger or MSN Messenger.) Net Nanny replaces objectionable words with pound signs. This may block certain words, but in many cases you can still get the message, and this doesn't help block pictures at all. Occasionally we were able to get to explicit images in newsgroups, though the more offensive words were blocked. If parents are concerned about what their kids may be exposed to in newsgroups, the best solution is to block newgroups completely.

Parents can use Net Nanny to log and review their kids' activities while filtering content. Alternatively, they can run Net Nanny in stealth mode, which monitors but doesn't block content. The software can record every site a child visits and send e-mail reports to the parents on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

This activity log is the most detailed in our roundup. It includes the number of online sessions, visited Web sites, traded files, and filter violations. Parents can choose to log violations only, log all activity, or turn off logging altogether.

For the youngest kids, parents could get away with Net Nanny as a set-it-and-forget-it solution. For older kids, though, they'll need to do more monitoring and be vigilant about configuring program settings.

Pros:
Simple and effective default setup. Good activity log.
Cons:
Not the most effective solution compared to other tools.




Summary

Net Nanny and CyberPatrol come highly rated in a group of effective filtering software but Cybersitter just outdoes them with a combination of the best filtering protection, setup and extra features.