Before we can jump into how you might select a filter, let’s take just a moment and make sure we understand the three basic types of filters on the market today.
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. We will discuss the two most common types of filters for homes here, namely: Software filters and Hardware filters.
Software filters. 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.
Hardware filter. When you have a broadband Internet connect, 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. Hardware filters are usually simplistic and would only prevent access to inappropriate content.
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.
How to choose the right filter technology
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:
- 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 most cell phones do not fall into this category, since they use the 3G or 4G cell phone network for their Internet access. Only when they are using a WiFi connection would they fit into this category. Just about everything else that accesses the Internet in your home uses your home network to do so.
If you have many different devices connecting to the Internet, 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.
- Do you have laptop computers, or other mobile Internet devices, in your home?
If you have mobile Internet devices, such as a laptop, iPad, etc in the home, it is highly likely that these devices access the Internet when away from home as well. People can access wireless networks in school, in libraries, on busses, and in many other “hotspots” around town. If you want to be sure that these devices are protected when away from home as well as when accessing the Internet in your home, then you would want a software 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, and but a software filter that is installed on the device will always protect the device, regardless of where it accesses the Internet.
- 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 de-activating 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.
- Are you concerned with accessing pornography only, or with other dangerous activity, such as Internet predators, chat rooms, etc?
Generally speaking, hardware 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.
With the answers to these questions, you can now determine whether you need a hardware filter or a software filter, or a combination of both. For a comparison of filters available on the market today, see the next section.