Although the commercial program NetNanny scored highest, it did so only by a small margin. Three of the free government sponsored filters were among the top performers also.
You can expect better performance from any program if you take the time to configure it to your liking. Tweaking the settings and training the software will increase the accuracy of the content filter. In the software we tested, this was easy to understand and do.
Our test results showed that all filters were effective in blocking pornography — 13 of the 15 filters tested blocked 90% or more. Terrorism was a weak point across the board however, with all tested programs scoring 53% or less.
Net file protection only
Good net filters can help protect you from offensive content detected live online, but won't protect you from the same content loaded from other sources.
We tested to see if the same type of content blocked online would be picked up if loaded onto a PC from another medium. We downloaded a .zip file containing restricted material, extracted its contents (images) to a folder on the Windows desktop and on to a USB key, then in both cases viewed the images from within a web browser.
None of the filter packages blocked the test images when loaded from a 'local' source rather than directly over the internet.
We looked at how the filter programs worked with popular web browsers Internet Explorer, Firefox, Netscape, Opera and Safari.
- Two filters didn’t work with Firefox — We-Blocker and NetNanny 5. If using these filters it’s advisable to not have Firefox installed on the computer.
- Internet Explorer is no longer offered on the Mac, but the other browsers have Mac versions.
- In this test, all the filters worked with Windows 2000 and XP except for Mac-only Safe Eyes for Mac and CYBERsitter.
- All filters worked with Windows 98 except: SafeEyes (PC), K9 Web Protection, NetNanny 5 and CYBERsitter.
- Only three were listed as compatible with Windows Me: iProtectYou, Cyber Sentinel and NetMop.
- Only two work with Windows 95: Cyber Sentinel and NetMop.
- All filters work with Vista except We-Blocker, ParentalControl Bar and Cyber Sentinel.
Partners in fighting crime
Net filtering is only part of the overall security picture for your computer. What about the other PC security stalwarts: antivirus, anti-spam, anti-spyware and firewall — do they all play well together?
Our testers found no overlap of functions or features. Net filter software is designed specifically for browsers and other internet programs, while other security software is designed to detect and protect against viruses, spam, spyware and other threats.
We strongly recommend you install and use good quality security software either as individual packages or as a security suite and keep it up to date. If you opt for a security suite rather than a standalone package, the suite may even include a net filter. Eight of the nine security suites in our most recent test included content filtering and six included instant messaging protection.
If your security suite already does net filtering but you prefer to use one of the programs we tested, check to see if the security suite will let you turn off that particular module before trying to use one of the filters we tested.
If you can’t disable the net filtering provided with your security suite, don’t install an additional net filtering program. Running multiple net filter programs on the same PC can cause software conflicts possibly leading to slowdowns, system instability or crashes and lack of protection.
Keeping up to date
All the net filters tested included an update feature to provide ongoing protection, but some did this automatically while others required manual intervention. Not surprisingly, automatic updating is the easiest to use. Each time you load the software or turn on the PC, the software is able to check for new information on restricted content and immediately download updates.
Manual updates require the user to remember to check for updates and initiate the process through a menu selection or via the developer’s website. The risk in this method is that unless you check manually on a regular basis, information that the software relies on to detect bad content may become out of date and reduce your protection.
Four of the 15 filters in this test (iProtectYou, Parental Filter, Cyber Sentinel and NetMop) didn’t have an auto update feature.
Free versus freeware
Our testing showed that in most cases you don’t have to pay for a commercial net filter program to get the best protection. A free program can do just as good a job if you select the right one.
Freeware, on the other hand, is not meant for commercial sale, although it may still be copyrighted. It is given away for free by the author, usually via download. The author retains the copyright, so you can’t legally do anything with it that is not expressly allowed by the author, such as modify or sell it. Freeware is sometimes supported by built-in advertising (in which case it’s known as Adware). Freeware often doesn’t come with technical support and some programs don’t have an extensive built-in help system.
The biggest difference between commercial and freeware programs is generally the relative lack of features for the free filters. Freeware programs are sometimes a little older than the commercially available ones. However, our testing found that some freeware programs can perform as well or better than commercial programs. ParentalControl Bar is a good example, with third-highest overall point score in testing, as good as commercial program CyberPatrol, priced at $US40.
The five freeware programs were chosen based on popularity searches at major online file library websites: download.com, softpedia.com and tucows.com.
Multiple computer conundrum
What if you have more than one computer — can the same piece of software legally be installed on all of them?
Only three of the tested products explicitly state they can be installed on more than one PC — NetMop, Integard and Filterpak. They come with three licences. NetNanny 5, CYBERSitter, CyberPatrol and Cyber Sentinel (all commercial products) require extra licences to be purchased and installed on any extra machines.
We found all the other free and government filters could be installed on multiple computers, but required a unique email address to be entered during the registration phase of each installation.