Does Content Filtering Work?

Full Disclosure: MePush is a reseller for OpenDNS

Let’s say you want to bring the good of the internet into your home… That’s easy you need a computer and internet service. Once things are hooked up you can search for the latest scores, buy a book, or meet people in your area concerned about the dangers of fracking. Unfortunately, without oversight your six year old can search for “playmates”, download in game content and meet people who are not who they say they are. So you try to be a good parent and put locks on the cabinet under the sink with your household cleaners, never drive without buckling up both your child and yourself, and of course demand that manufacturers put dead man switches on lawn mowers and power tools. You may even try to setup content filtering such as OpenDNS on your internet connection to keep the less tasteful and potentially dangerous parts of the internet out of your home. You even test your system and find obvious things are blocked but somehow Junior has found some inappropriate pictures what ever are you to do?

I get this question a LOT. Parents ask me how to keep their kids safe online while businesses ask how to keep malware and distractions like Facebook out. I try to sound flippant when answering but the truth is that the only sure way is to unplug from the internet. This answer is much too simplistic, you may argue and I there we agree. Many people want both the good things from the internet; email, Wikipedia, cloud storage… without any of the bad; phishing scams, malware, obtrusive and inappropriate ads. So why can’t the internet be redesigned to let only legitimate information through?

Well that’s a tough question and the real honest answer is that the internet was designed to be content neutral and it would be expensive and disruptive to redesign. But at a deeper level an uncensored internet is really what we want. The internet is a tool and a tool in the right hands can cure cancer or build a community just as the same tool in the wrong hands can wreak havoc on the environment or start a war. Specifically, by being content neutral the internet helps people connect and organize against authoritarian regimes or malfeasant companies just as it enables the spread of malware and ads for pharmaceuticals. Of course some of this is in the eye of the beholder so the internet can help you find the best price on the collected works of Mark Twain and also help Amazon undercut the prices of brick and mortar booksellers at the same time depending on your perspective.

I of course realize that many people cannot accept the fact that the internet works even though it allows the spread of dangerous content and in fact only works because it allows the spread of all content dangerous or not. [1] [2] [3] But for those of us dealing with the internet as it really is, we have to accept that much good comes with some bad. If you take nothing else away from this blog post I want you to understand that. You cannot have an internet that is perfectly free of dangerous content. Dangerous content will always find its way through and can only be ignored or deleted. So what’s to be done?

Set Expectations.

For parents I think it is a careful conversation about appropriate internet use that changes as kids grow. Things that are inappropriate for a 6 year old may be necessary research for a 13 year old. Also parental involvement may mean only using the internet while a parent or teacher is present when a kid is young and likely evolves to keeping an open mind and discussing topics that may be uncomfortable with adolescents.

Employers too need to have a conversation with employees. Internet needs vary with job ranging from jobs that require none to jobs that require frequent use of one or two websites or even complete access to everything available on the web. But an expectation needs to be set for nothing illegal and try to keep net access work related.

Reinforcing Expectations.

This is where content filtering can play a role. The job of content filtering is not to thwart a determined user but to remind them that you do have certain expectations and help prevent unintentional mistakes. Yours would not be the first tale of evaluating products online to fix a business problem which resulted in the accidental malware infection or search for school paper that resulted in exposure to adult themed material. MePush resells OpenDNS for Business and can help home users get started with free home accounts. We like OpenDNS because it is easy to deploy and the online Dashboard offers powerful configuration options for even the most computer-phobic user.

Remain Flexible

In my humble experience one thing sticks out as the number one reason content filtering fails and that filtering did not change as needs changed. Kids grow up and businesses change from internal business apps to cloud services and if you don’t update your filtering to reflect these changes users will be pushed to circumvent the filtering restriction exposing them to unwanted problems such as malware that they have not learned to deal with. OpenDNS gives users a link on the site blocked page where users can request that a site can be unblocked. Responding in a timely and thoughtful way to these requests helps you to stay flexible to client needs in the short term while periodic reviews of your content filtering setting including exception lists helps keep your filtering in tune with long term trends. Just remember that installing a content filtering solution is not a launch and forget fix to a long term issue but rather a tool to be wielded with care.

Conclusions

Content Filtering like the Internet is a tool. It can be used wisely or misused. Content Filtering does not work if you are expecting a magic bullet solution but when used in conjunction with expectation setting it can be rather effective.