Don’t you hate it when you’re browsing the web, whether at school or at work, and you’re met with an “Access Denied” page? It simply means that an administrator decided that that particular website is “inappropriate viewing” while on that network.
This access denial is done using a content filter, also known as a content blocker or content control, and as frustrating as it might be on your end — especially when a website is blocked unjustly — such content filters exist for good reason.
In fact, if you aren’t using a content filter at home, you ought to reconsider. They might cause an inconvenience here and there, but the benefits are well worth it. In this post, we’ll explore how they work and why you should use one.
How Does a Content Filter Work?
Content filters are actually quite simple, conceptually speaking. They sit in the background of your system and scan all incoming data, matching all of that data against a set of rules, and if a match is found, preventing that data from going any further.
It sounds suspiciously similar to a totalitarian state, I know, which is why content filters are sometimes referred to as “censorware” and/or “nannyware”. The difference here, at least in this article, is that we’re talking about voluntarily setting up your own filters.
When setting up a personal content filter, you have five main options to explore. It’s up to you how many of them you decide to implement:
- Browser-based are built directly into certain web browsers. For example, Microsoft Edge has a feature called SmartScreen Filter. The other major browsers don’t have such a feature as of this writing.
- Extension-based are added into browsers through third-party extensions and there’s at least one good content filtering extension available for each major browser. ProCon Latte and WebFilter Pro are good examples.
- Mobile-based are apps that can block web content once installed onto your phone or tablet. Some only work with certain browser apps while others can filter down at the OS-level.
- Computer-based are programs that you can install on your PC that will block content no matter which browser you use. We have a few recommendations at the end of this post. K9 Web Protection and Qustodio are popular options.
- Router-based involve pointing your router to a certain DNS server, which allows that DNS server to act as a content filter. The benefit here is that this blocker applies to all devices that connect to your router. I highly recommend OpenDNS Home.
Beyond these, you also have things like business-wide, ISP-wide, and nation-wide content filters. Those are closer to the censorship side of the spectrum, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.
4 Reasons to Use a Content Filter
By this point most people have one question on their minds: “Why bother?” Indeed, most people overestimate how well they can stay safe on the internet and underestimate just how easy it is to be caught off guard. Here’s how you can benefit from a content filter.
1. It can prevent you from visiting malware-ridden sites. All it takes is one bad link to lead you into a nightmare of popups, malware, and viruses — and it can happen whether you’re browsing the innocent or shady sides of the web, though the latter is more prone to such online security risks
The truth is that nobody is perfect and you’re bound to visit a malware-ridden site at some point or another. When that happens, a content filter can detect and prevent you from visiting such sites at all. (You should still use a security suite as well!)
2. It can block offensive or unpleasant material. Do you remember the “screamer sites” that were oh-so-popular back in the 1990s and 2000s? You were asked to concentrate on a dot or solve a hard maze and after a while a deathly image popped up and gave you a heart attack.
Such sites still exist today, though things have progressed towards other forms of “shocking” content, like sex, gore, death, and more. A good content filter will prevent all of that, which is especially valuable when you have kids browsing the web.
3. It can protect you from legal liabilities. Simply put, a content filter can add a layer of prevention between your computer and certain forms of illegal activity, like file sharing and online gambling.
Seeing as how some people have been sued or fined for things like that, you may want to keep your distance as much as possible.
If you ever come across a torrenting site or online gambling site and your content filter doesn’t block it, it’s often trivially easy to add your own rules for blocking those sites as you encounter them.
4. It can help curb certain addictions. You’d be surprised how many people have at least one form of digital tech addiction. On the softer side, you have things like internet addiction and gaming addiction.
Content filters won’t cure you of your addictions, but they can act as effective hedges that may deter you from indulging when a particular urge strikes. Tech addiction can be tough and it seems like the future may be even tougher.
Other potential benefits to using a content filter include boosts to your productivity (if you block distracting sites) and reduced data usage (if you block data-draining sites like YouTube).
Safety Is Important on the Web
While content filters are an important element in staying safe online, they’re just one piece of a grander puzzle. If you want to maximize your safety — and your family’s safety — on the web, you’ll need a few other expert security tips.
First, make sure you aren’t making these common password mistakes. Second, configure your router using the best and proper security settings. Third, start using a reputable VPN service (but don’t fall for these common VPN myths).
How do you feel about content filters? Do you have one set up in your home? If not, why not? Share your thoughts with us in a comment down below!