Net filtering software review

Keep your child safe from internet nasties with net filtering software.
 
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  • Updated:15 Jan 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Child using laptop

Test results for 15 internet filtering programs, including free and commercial products

There are all kinds of 'net nasties' that try to invade your computer, such as viruses, spyware and spam. But what about undesirable content that can be accessed through a web browser — how can you prevent your children being exposed to this?

That’s where internet filtering software comes in. This software helps to block content such as pornography, violence, hate groups and other unwanted text and pictures that can hit your screen without permission. But is your child really safe to browse the Web unsupervised with one of these programs in place?

To find out, we tested 15 net filtering programs, including five government-supported packages (free downloads for all Australian families), five best-selling commercial packages, and five popular freeware programs.

We tested all the software using their default settings, to see how well the filters blocked potentially harmful material from websites depicting physical abuse, crime, guns, hate, pornography, terrorism, violence, and warez (illegal software).

We also checked for false positives — that is mistakenly blocking non-offensive and possibly helpful sites — and whether the programs could detect and block undesirable content from emails, instant messaging, downloads, archived files, and removable media (hard drives and USB keys).

Ease of use was evaluated on installation, updating, support, navigation and layout. To rate flexibility, we looked at the availability of useful features, options and settings for each product.

Please note: this information was current as of January 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


In brief

  • Net filtering can help prevent children from accessing undesirable web content.
  • Net filters aren’t foolproof and may not block all types of content.
  • They can mistakenly filter out 'safe' content and sites.
  • They’re not a substitute for proper parental supervision.
  • Some free software can perform as well as commercial programs.

Products we tested

  • Cyber Patrol
  • CYBERsitter
  • Cyber Sentinel
  • Filterpak
  • Integard
  • iProtect You
  • K9 Web Protection
  • NetMop
  • NetNanny 5
  • Optenet Web Filter
  • ParentalControl Bar
  • Parental Filter
  • Safe Eyes (Mac)
  • Safe Eyes (PC)
  • We-Blocker
 
 

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The following products scored the best results in our test.

What to buy
Brand Price
NetNanny 5 v5.6.0.178 $39.99 (USD)
Integard v1.4.0.6299 Free (via NetAlert)
ParentalControl Bar v4.0.3.344 Free
CyberPatrol v7.6 $39.95 (USD)
Safe Eyes (Mac) v5 Free (via NetAlert)
Optenet Web Filter v1.0.4 Free (via NetAlert)

There was not a lot to separate the top six products we tested and any of these filters will provide a good level of screening. It’s worth noting that all the programs tested have the potential to perform better if 'trained' correctly over a period of time by manually approving or disapproving content.

Of the 15 filters tested, the top six comprised two commercial (NetNanny and CyberPatrol), three government supplied (Integard, Safe Eyes for Mac and Optenet Web Filter) plus one freeware filter (ParentalControl Bar).

Beware the boxed product

Software versions tend to change rapidly and it's easy for retailers to be left with old stock on their shelves. So if you buy a boxed software product be sure to double check the version before purchase.

Of the tested products, NetNanny 5 was the only one we found in a boxed product available from computer retailers. However, this was an older version than the one available for download and was not compatible with Internet Explorer 7. We purchased a current version online for testing.

Results Tables

Full results for all products are shown in the tables below.

Blocking breakdown table

  Modes of blocking
Software / Website Version Price Overall Ease of Use Performance Flexibility URL Keyword Dynamic Categorisation
NetNanny 5
www.netnanny.com.au
5.6.0.178 US $39.99 75 95 63 75
Integard
www.raceriver.com [a]
1.4.0.6299 Free (via NetAlert) 73 88 59 84
ParentalControl Bar
www.parentalcontrolbar.org
4.0.3.344 Free 71 84 81 25
CyberPatrol
www.cyberpatrol.com
7.6 US $39.95 70 81 65 66
Safe Eyes (Mac)
www.safeeyes.com.au [a]
5 Free (via NetAlert) 69 88 63 53
Optenet Web Filter
www.optenet.com [a]
1.0.4 Free (via NetAlert) 68 84 64 56
K9 Web protection
www.k9webprotection.com
3.2.44 Free 65 83 67 34
CYBERsitter
www.cybersitter.com
10.7.11.12 US $39.95 65 93 47 69
Filterpak
http://centipedenetworks.com [a]
7.7 Free (via NetAlert) 62 75 57 56
Safe Eyes (PC)
www.safeeyes.com.au [a]
5 Free (via NetAlert) 59 85 42 63
Safe Families We-Blocker Parental Control
www.safefamilies.org
2.0.1 Free 58 86 55 22
Cyber Sentinel
www.cybersentinel.com
3.5.9.0 US $39.95 50 58 39 66
NetMop FilterPak for Windows
www.netmop.com
7.7.1 US $54.00 45 39 47 47
iProtectYou
www.softforyou.com
3.06 Free 41 50 33 47
Parental Filter
www.ecommsec.com
3 Free 34 46 32 22
 


  Features
Software / Website Log reports sent via email Detailed history reporting Restrict time online Application blocking Stealth mode Remote management Multi-licence
NetNanny 5
www.netnanny.com.au
C, N, I, P, E
Integard
www.raceriver.com [a]
C, N, I, P, E
ParentalControl Bar
www.parentalcontrolbar.org
C
CyberPatrol
www.cyberpatrol.com
C, N, P, E
Safe Eyes (Mac)
www.safeeyes.com.au [a]
C, N, E
Optenet Web Filter
www.optenet.com [a]
C, N, I, P, E
K9 Web protection
www.k9webprotection.com
None
CYBERsitter
www.cybersitter.com
C, N, I, P, E
Filterpak
http://centipedenetworks.com [a]
C, E
Safe Eyes (PC)
www.safeeyes.com.au [a]
C, N, I, P, E
Safe Families We-Blocker Parental Control
www.safefamilies.org
None
Cyber Sentinel
www.cybersentinel.com
C, P, E
NetMop FilterPak for Windows
www.netmop.com
C, N, I, E
iProtectYou
www.softforyou.com
C, N, I, P, E
Parental Filter
www.ecommsec.com
C
 

Table notes

[a] To download the software, go to the NetAlert website (www.netalert.gov.au).

Price: Price paid in November 2007.

Scores

  • Ease of use: (30% of overall) how easy the software is to use, from installation, updating, support information and navigating the software.
  • Performance: (50% of overall) whether the product is able to detect offensive material under typical circumstances that a user may encounter on the Internet.
  • Flexibility: (20% of overall) The different features, options and settings available within the software.

Features

  • Individual user profiles: whether the software can be set up and customised for multiple users.
  • Log reports sent via email: allows for reports to be received remotely.
  • Detailed history reporting: an in-depth breakdown of usage and violations.
  • Restrict time online: time restrictions set by the administrator for a daily/weekly basis.
  • Application blocking: specific blocking for programs including 
    C = chat
    N = newsgroup
    I = instant messaging (tested with Microsoft Messenger but may not necessarily work with all other IM programs)
    P = peer-to-peer (file sharing)
    E = email.
  • Stealth mode: if the software can operate hidden from a standard user.
  • Remote management: whether the software can be managed off-site.
  • Multi-licence: if the software can be used on multiple computers.

We tested 15 net filtering software programs for performance, ease of use and flexibility, against 11 categories of potentially harmful material:

  • Abuse/exploitation — hurting or injuring by maltreatment; ill-use. Forced sexual activity.
  • Circumventors (proxies) — sites that allow access to blocked content and web pages by re-routing browser requests, 'circumventing' filtering software in the process.
  • Crime (illegal activity) — an act committed or omitted in violation of a law.
  • Drugs — any article intended to affect the function of the human body or animals.
  • False positives — mistakenly blocking non-offensive and possibly helpful sites, such as sex education.
  • Guns — projectile weaponry.
  • Hate speech — written/verbal attacks on a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
  • Pornography — sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material.
  • Terrorism — the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organised group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing.
  • Violence — physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing.
  • Warez (illegal software) — commercial software that has been pirated and made available to the public via the Internet.

Peformance

All software was configured with the filters set to their default levels, as it is impossible to test all the different variations of settings for each program. Their performance was assessed using 'on-access' real time testing. For each of the categories, we entered a descriptive phrase into a search engine and collected 15 website addresses that contained explicit material. This list of sites was then used to test each filtering package in turn on cleanly installed systems.

Peformance was gauged on how well the filters blocked (or didn’t block) the material. We checked an additional 15 URLs for false positives, which is where the program blocks a legitimate site due to some misinterpreted language or image.

We also checked whether the programs could detect harmful material via a number of other mechanisms such as:

  • Email attachment
  • Email body
  • Instant messaging
  • Download
  • Archived file
  • Moved/copied/renamed/open file
  • Removable media (USB key, external hard drive)
  • Finally, we took note if any of the programs had a significant performance impact on web surfing.

Ease of use

This was evaluated taking into account software installation, updating and support information, as well as navigation and layout.

Flexibility

This was assessed based on the features, options and settings that were available. For example, filters that included advanced management capabilities scored higher than those filters that didn’t.

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.

Browser support

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.

System support

  • 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.

CHOICE Verdict

Net filtering can be effective in blocking unwanted content — some of it (such as pornography) more than others. But the question is more complicated than just which package to install.

As a parent, you also need to consider that filtering is only a partial solution. Simply blocking out content of various kinds may prevent it being viewed on a particular computer, but in itself does little to help educate children about what they may come across on the internet elsewhere and how to deal with it.

If you have young children using the internet you may want to take a stronger approach. But for older children you should consider their age and computer experience and your own moral stance, before deciding whether to install a net filter package and how tightly you should configure it.

As children grow older and more sophisticated about the use of computers and the internet, a heavy-handed 'big brother' approach of spying on and controlling online activities may be counter-productive to building effective communication and trust between parents and children.

With respect to the net filters we tested, even though the commercial program NetNanny scored top in our product list, there’s not much to pick between any of the top six programs overall. The freeware program ParentalControl Bar came in at third spot along with the commercial program CyberPatrol, but Australian residents might as well go for one of the government provided packages — Integard or Optenet Web Filter for Windows PCs or Safe Eyes for Mac. They come with the features and support you’d expect of a commercial program.

Remember, however, that the bottom line is that no net filtering system is foolproof. There is still no substitute for parental supervision when children are online. When parental supervision is not possible, software can help reduce the chances of undesirable content being seen, but it needs to be part of an overall online safety strategy. We strongly advise also running a quality security suite to minimise the risk of exposure to other unwanted net nasties as well.

Getting around the system

No software screening or security system will be effective for your children if they can use Administrator level access privileges to bypass or disable it. Make sure you use a 'strong' password and keep it safe so it can’t be found by children.

A strong password should be at least seven characters long and contain letters, numbers and symbols. It should be quite different from your other passwords, not contain your name or user name and not be a common word or name.

To check if a password you’ve chosen is 'strong' enough, you can use Microsoft's online password checker.
If you can’t think of a good password you can have one created for you at strongpasswordgenerator.com.
And, of course, once you have a strong password don’t write it down and leave it where it can be found.

Why do we need net filtering?

The internet is a global access system with no central administration. Censorship levels vary from country to country, culture to culture. Many countries have created their own set of rules for what can be shared on the internet, based on the country’s moral standards and political outlook. The very nature of the internet, which makes it such an invaluable information resource, also makes it difficult to regulate and control.

The challenge for governments worldwide is to allow people access to the internet but try to ensure that the content isn’t harmful or offensive to each particular country. By and large, however, the best way to make sure you and your family only view content that is acceptable to you is to install a net filtering package and customise it for your particular needs.

What the Australian Government is doing

You can find out how to complain about particular internet content or report inappropriate or illegal internet activity via ACMA (acma.gov.au). ACMA also has a net safety online education website called Cybersmart Kids Online (cybersmart.gov.au).

Dictionary

  • Blacklist: A list of sites that should be blocked from access.
  • Category blocking: groups websites into categories and sites are allowed or blocked depending on what category they belong to (eg, violence, nudity). It’s usually used in association with blacklist/whitelist filtering.
  • Dynamic categorisation: filtering based on a constant analysis of the website rather than specific keyword and URL content.
  • Firewall: a software program and/or hardware device that limits outside network access to a computer or local network by blocking or restricting access to your computer.
  • Spam: unsolicited commercial (junk) email distributed on a large scale and often as part of a scam.
  • Spyware: software that secretly gathers information about a computer user or organisation.
  • Virus: a software program, script, or macro that has been designed to infect, destroy, modify, or cause other problems with a computer or software program.
  • Whitelist: a list of websites that have been specifically approved as suitable for access.