Latest update: May 19th, 2013
Editor’s Note: In light of all the attention that the recent Internet Asifa garnered, we thought it wise to offer this analysis on the subject by Rabbi Gil Student, founder of TorahMusings.com and former managing editor of OU Publications. Without a doubt, the Internet offers many wonderful opportunities, but it also presents substantial dangers for young and old alike. We believe Rabbi Student’s constructive advice and assistance will serve our readership well. The fact is that we can’t hide our heads in the sand; the Internet is often vital to our lives, especially in the work place, which is often Internet-related and dependent.
Internet Filters For The Orthodox Jew
Filters are an important tool in responsibly using the Internet. Without a filter, someone browsing the web may accidentally stumble onto, or in a moment of weakness intentionally go to, objectionable websites which may contain any of the following: pornography, gambling, gaming, profanity, lashon hara, counter-religious ideas or pictures/videos objectionable to Orthodox Jews. A filter will prevent that access or at least make it more difficult. However, filters are totally useless without attendant computer security, which we will also briefly discuss. What follows are explanations and recommendations I put together and had reviewed by a techie.
II. Filtering Methods
There are three methods of filtering: time control, content filtering, and content control. Time control sets limits on the time Internet access is available. For example, you can allow it only between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m. or on Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m. This can help prevent overuse of the Internet and also ensure that people only access the Internet when others are likely to be awake and may walk into the room.
Content filtering blocks websites that are deemed objectionable. Black lists contain addresses for offensive websites that are blocked. These are generally compiled by a combination of algorithm and human evaluation. Often, filters allow you to add your own list of blocked sites (for example, you can decide to block SportsIllustrated.com). They also allow you to choose entire categories to block or allow, such as social networking.
In contrast, white lists contain addresses of permissible sites that a user adds to it. The rest of the Internet is blocked. Each website must be approved before passing through the filter.
Content control actively changes objectionable content on a website. It may block pictures or change profane words to a string of punctuation marks. Ad blocking software is an important example of content control.
Filters have to be smarter than just blocking URLs and must use a combination of methods to ensure that content that is supposed to be blocked actually is. To my knowledge, there is no way you can fully accomplish this, but you can get pretty close to airtight.
III. Filter Types
There are four types of filter structures for consumers: browser-side, client-side, router-side, and ISP-side. A browser-side filter is either a web browser or a browser add-on that limits your access to the web in any of the three methods discussed above. In order for these to be effective, users must have limited ability to install and uninstall add-ons and new programs. Otherwise, they can easily disable the filtering capabilities or install an unfiltered browser or other program that accesses the web.
A client-side filter is installed on a computer (or device) and limits all access to the web from that computer. These sometimes slow the computer down, but they are harder to deactivate than browser-side filters and regulate all programs on the computer.
An ISP-side filter limits the Internet access provided to a customer. If the ISP successfully blocks content, the customer cannot access it through any program, on any device. These filters require a special Internet provider that usually lacks the same scale of operation (and therefore cannot offer cheap prices) as the large, unfiltered Internet services.
A router-side filter also limits the Internet access received by a customer, including wireless connections at home. Unlike an ISP-side filter, the customer installs this. It is generally somewhat complex to install but more powerful than a browser-side or client-side filter.
IV. Activity Monitoring
Another function many filters provide is the ability to monitor online activity. There are three types of activities often monitored: website visits, search terms, and social network activity. The results can either be saved and available for an administrator to access (pull) or sent via e-mail to the administrator (push). The latter includes “buddy” monitoring, in which a user selects someone to receive a detailed list of online activity. Social network monitoring is particularly important for parents who wish to ensure that their children are not sharing information that should be kept private.
V. Choosing a Filter
Consumers who choose a filter need to balance simplicity and effectiveness. Most people are not technologically savvy and prefer easy installations and minimal options. There are a number of robust filters available for a small charge. You can find a comparison of their features at http://Internet-filter-review.toptenreviews.com. Additionally, some filters with fewer features are available for free. One popular filter is K9 Web Protection. For computers, K9 provides a client-side filter with time control and content control, category blocking, ad blocking, black list, white list, and website activity monitoring.
All browser-based and client-side filters allow an administrator to override the blocking by entering a password. If you find a site that you believe is unobjectionable to be blocked, you enter your password to access it by overriding the filter’s control. This means that you must guard your password and change it regularly. Do not let your children see you type it in or give them any clue by which they can discover it. If you do, you have compromised your entire filtering system.
VI. Mobile Devices
Filtering mobile devices is more complicated than a computer because you cannot install a filter. Corporations that filter their mobile devices do so at the server level (similar to ISP-based filters), which average consumers cannot do. However, many mobile devices incorporate parental settings (“Restrictions” on iPods, iPhones and iPads) that serve as client-side filters. Learn how to use them. For example, you can set your iPhone restrictions (protected with a 4-digit password) to disable or limit music, movies and apps. However, be aware that a motivated child can easily bypass all these restrictions.
For browser-side filtering, you must disable the built-in browser Safari and download a filtered browser like K9, SafeEyes or McGruff. In order for this to work, you must also disable the downloading of apps. Otherwise, your child can easily download an unfiltered browser. Again, a child can easily bypass this restriction and re-enable Safari. OpenDNS is one free router-side filter that works on your home wifi network.
VII. Computer Security
None of these filters will accomplish anything if a user can easily deactivate them. At a bare minimum, you have to make sure that no users have “admin” control and therefore have only limited ability to install and uninstall programs. Create a separate administrator account for which only you have the password and make sure that all other users have limited rights.
Guard your passwords. Pick one that your children cannot easily guess, do not let your children watch you enter it, and change it regularly.
For iPods and similar devices, it is best to share an iTunes account with your children so you know what apps they are downloading. However, you have to occasionally check in order to monitor.
VIII. Filters Are Not The Answer
To my knowledge, no commercially available filters reach the standards of Orthodox Judaism. In particular, they do not block lashon hara and counter-religious websites. However, other than that, you can use the Internet without having to see ads or being able to reach inappropriate websites.
Be aware, though, that filters can be bypassed by motivated, clever people. You need to use filters along with security measures and other precautions, such as placing computers in public areas like the kitchen and educating toward healthy and proper use, not least of which is maintenance of privacy. Net Nanny lists the following top ten Internet safety tips (see there for more elaboration):
1) First educate yourself, then your child 2) Teach children the obvious identity rules 3) Install an Internet filter or family safety software 4) Know the dangers associated with sites your children frequent 5) Teach children what to do if they encounter pornography on a home or public computer, such as at a school or a library 6) Manage your children’s time on the Internet 7) Set specific Internet guidelines for your children to live by and consistently enforce consequences, if they are not being followed 8) Keep computers out of children’s bedrooms and in open areas 9) Create a relationship with your children that is conducive to open communication 10) Understand Internet Privacy Policies as they apply to your child
There are many websites and books about “family friendly” Internet use that are worth exploring. Google “family friendly Internet” for a wealth of resources.
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