Best Free Parental Filter

 

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Introduction
Parental control software makes it harder to find inappropriate material on the Internet or to do things that "parents" don't want. The criteria I've used includes these four main components of parental control plus compatibility with browsers and operating systems:
 
Block addresses – to avoid specific Internet addresses (URLs or IP addresses) 
Filter content – to identify inappropriate material
Manage usage – to limit Internet access by setting time limits and time quotas 
Monitor activities – to see what has happened with alerts and reporting
 

Most of the products and services I've reviewed provide similar levels of blocking. They do very little, if any, online filtering for other content. This is because the block lists are created offline from content filtering done on the providers' servers.

I'm separating the discussion into two groups to clarify a key difference based on the breadth of activities that can be managed. OpenDNS, the previous first choice, is a great DNS server that focuses on web blocking and does that very well. But there is a broader range of controls that parents want which can only be provided by installing software on the desktop. Examples are limiting game usage, limiting computer time; and preventing avoidance.

1. Gateway or proxy servers only need simple configuration changes on your PC or router. They don't manage usage nor a wider range of desktop activities. They also have a major weakness which makes the controls easy to sidestep: the DNS configuration can be changed just as simply as it was setup.

2. Desktop software is installed on your PC to provide a wider range of parental controls. Time limits and quotas are usual.  Some can filter or monitor much more than just web surfing: email, instant messaging, internet chat, and games.  Plus there are a few more features to deter users who want to avoid the controls. For example, passwords are usually required to alter the configuration or uninstall the product. 

Discussion - Gateways

 

OpenDNS    Rating 6 of 10  

OpenDNS

OpenDNS is a web-based service that replaces your ISP’s DNS servers. You will usually have no software to install but you will have to register with OpenDNS and change the DNS settings for your router or PC. The online instructions are clear and easy to follow: select the router or PC & operating system, configure the settings, and test the new setup. If you are not confident about this then walk through the instructions without signing up.

OpenDNS works very simply. Its main task is to find web pages for you. It also checks its database to find out if the web page needs to be blocked. It blocks web pages by redirecting your browser to the OpenDNS block page instead of going to the requested web page. I find it is the fastest of the products reviewed here.

In order to enable content protection you will need to register for a free account with OpenDNS. There are two free options (as well as two paid options with more features):

OpenDNS Family Shield is the easiest to setup as it is designed to be real simple. It only filters a limited set of sites (adult sites, proxy and anonymizer sites, phishing sites, some virus-spreading malware sites) but you don't have to customize the filtering.
 
OpenDNS Basic is more work to setup but that is because it is more customizable: you can block or unblock any of 54 categories of sites; block and unblock individual sites; produce reports on sites visited which can then be downloaded or printed; customize the block page; and create URL shortcuts, such as "tsa" for TechSupportAlert. Once you have registered to use OpenDNS, you will use the OpenDNS Dashboard to configure and report on activity. It is a password-protected control panel where you can use one of 5 pre-set categories designed or customise your own setting with selected categories. By default OpenDNS only blocks phishing sites.  You can also designate OpenDNS to restrict or permit individual sites. Reports on sites visited and usage charts are more useful in OpenDNS than in most of the desktop products. With OpenDNS you can view total requests, total unique domains, total unique IP's and total blocked domains in a far more readable and useful format. Plus you can print reports or download stats in a CSV file.
 
There are further benefits from using OpenDNS:

– You may notice a speed advantage if your ISP has slower or less reliable DNS servers. Each OpenDNS server has a massive cache so it is less likely to have to go to other DNS servers for the site you want. OpenDNS has several regional servers through North America and one in Europe. I found the speed very good even from New Zealand and OpenDNS was faster than any of the desktop solutions.
– You can create the URL "shortcuts" already mentioned. Enter a short word instead of a long address in the address bar and you will be taken to that website.
– OpenDNS can display web pages when a site is down (see OpenDNS Smart Caching Displays Websites Even When They're Down)
– OpenDNS supports almost any platform including many mobile platforms

OpenDNS is not perfect. It is easy to bypass because you only have to reconfigure the DNS server settings to point at another DNS server. It doesn’t yet allow the blocking of unrated (not categorised) sites. Also, if you have a dynamic IP address (one that changes each time you connect) then you will need to install additional desktop software (the OpenDNS Updater, 256KB).

 
At the moment, OpenDNS has no competitors providing free blocking but there is at least one contender lining up. I've provided the links for your information:
DNS Advantage  supports some well-known Internet businesses with servers spread through more continents than OpenDNS. At present blocking is limited to malware protection but more comprehensive filtering is under development. It should be a strong challenger to OpenDNS.
Clearcloud also provides malware protection but has no plans for broader filtering and blocking.
 
Discussion - Desktop software

Norton Safety Minder   Rating 7 of 10  Gizmo's Top Pick

Norton Safety Minder settingsThe first choice in this category is Norton Safety Minder by Symantec. It is a part of Norton Online Family which also includes Norton Account, which you will need, and free site-rating with Norton Safe Web.

Norton Safety Minder is a pleasure to use. For a start, it is the most comprehensive of the free programs. It has filtering and monitoring for web surfing, social networks, email, instant messaging, and contacts. It also handles multiple user accounts which is good for one PC with many users but does increase the work to setup. If you need all these features then you should also have a look at the paid version which adds videos, daily usage quotas, and makes reporting useful by reporting on all activity increasing the report period from 7 days to 90 days.

Some of the useful features that were not common to other programs:

– Email alerts if your child crosses any monitoring threshold. Plus children can request that a site be unblocked. You can whether you receive the requests immediately or once a day.
– Your settings are stored in your free Norton Account at Symantec. That account is not removed when you uninstall. So you can reinstall and the settings don't have to be re-entered.
– The paid version has daily time quotas in addition to the usual time limits. So you can, for example, specify 2 hours use between school and bed-time.

I only had one issue. Unblocking pages is too time consuming because you don’t get the option to unblock at the block page. Instead you have to change go to the web setup pages to specify a site to allow.

Norton Safety Minder installs browser add-ons which worked fine for me. It does have problems running with other security software such as Avast! - you will need to disable the Avast! Web Shield if it is enabled. See Norton's list of known problems Using Norton Safety Minder with other security products. While testing I had no problems with Avira Antivir Personal or Microsoft Security Essentials.
  

 

K9 Web Protection    Rating 6 of 10

K9 Web

K9 Web Protection by Blue Coat Systems is the second choice for the dektop. If your primary requirement is for web filtering with safe searching then I would use this because it is simple and effective.

K9 requires a license key that you can obtain before or after you install the software. It can be reused if you reinstall K9 so you will be sent an email with the license key whenever you uninstall K9.

Blue Coat's approach is different to the other providers because K9 is most accessible when a page has been blocked. This means that I don't get frustrated if I want to see the page or realize that my settings are wrong. The block page provides access (with the correct password) to all that I need: the site URL and why it is blocked; unblock the site or the category either temporarily or permanently; request that the site be reviewed; enter supervisor mode, i.e. no filtering; or change the main settings. Of course, if I just want a block page with no options I can set that in the 'Blocking Effects'.

All other changes are made through the web interface: a password-protected menu with three options:

– View Internet Activity. K9 logs every site you’ve accessed and the activity view highlights those that have been blocked.
– Setup is where you specify the sites or site categories to block or allow, the time restrictions, and safe search options.
– Get Help is the first place to go if you have any problems.

What are potential issues? There is not the breadth of controls of products like Norton Safety Minder. Settings apply to all users on the computer as it does not have settings for each account - but that is what I normally want. The barking sound when blocking is helpful until you realize it barks on blocked ads too. Blocking an allowed site is done through the main menu as there is no system tray icon or button for this. There is no printing of activity reports. On occasions, web surfing has been slow or intermittent but, given that I’m half a world away from the K9 servers, that is not unexpected.

K9 also has a couple of useful and unique features. A timeout period can be set if there are too many blocks in a period up to an hour. URLs containing a specified keyword will all be blocked. Activity logs can be kept a long time and cleared whenever you like.

 

Windows Live Family Safety    Rating 5 of 10

Windows Live Family Safety settingsThe third option in this category is Windows Live Family Safety by Microsoft. This is good program but its strength is its weakness: it is best as an extension of Windows parental controls and Windows Live. If you don't use either or are using Windows XP then I don't recommend Windows Live Family Safety because you can choose better products in Norton Safety Minder and K9 Web Protection.
– The later your version of Windows then the more parental controls you get. Live Family Safety works best with Windows 7 and well with Vista but is not very good with Windows XP as there are several features that don't work very well or at all.
– Live Family Safety works better with Microsoft products like Internet Explorer - I had a couple of problems running it with Mozilla Firefox. Some components like contact management only work with Microsoft services.

I use Live Mail so I liked not having to remember another password. The interface was familiar to me yet it should be easy to use for most people. Each user profile is setup separately in a similar way to Windows parental controls, which it actually sits above. Be careful because some changes to the blocking setup did not take effect immediately.

The site blocking works very well in all versions of Windows and web surfing seemed more responsive than with K9 and Norton. But I wasn't able to choose from a list of categories to filter. Instead, Family Safety provides five levels of configuration related to the age of your children. Also, safe search is not as good because I could still view image files in the search engine image cache even though the sites were blocked. It can be uninstalled without a password.

 

KidZui K2 browser    Rating 5 of 10

KidZui K2

KidZui has two browsers versions which cannot be run together. The older Classic version is available for those who have Classic accounts and either want to continue using it or are users of the paid Plus features (blocking sites, unlimited history, adding sites to kids favorites). All other users are recommended to use the newer and much simpler K2 version which I am reviewing here.

KidZui K2 provides a safe environment for young children. Every link is whitelisted which means they are all positively vetted. The downside is that there are many things that cannot be done in KidZui. But young children should be fine with this.

Sign up to get a password so you can set four options: launch at start-up; parental password to exit; full-screen mode; and toggle the welcome screen. If you want to, you can set it to run automatically at full-screen without your child being able to exit. But it is quite simple to circumvent and would not stop older children from avoiding it.

 

Other Parental Filters

This is the extent of current programs I tested:

  • SafeSquid for 1-3 users is a free version of a corporate product that is not for non-technical users. Once you have installed it you must customize It to make it useful. There is a lot of documentation to help you and there are some useful downloads to get filtering and safe search working. I tried it and found the filtering very effective. You can run it on a gateway or individual desktop and there are numerous network configuration options.
  • FortiClient  has a Web Content Filter component that can be installed without the complete package. Again, this is part of a corporate product. That's probably why it has the best and largest selection of filter categories that I have used: 83 categories in total. Blocking performance was comparable with the recommended products but it didn't enforce safe searching and reporting is limited to a log file.
  • Microsoft Windows Parental Controls built into Microsoft Windows are increasingly more comprehensive but virtually useless in Windows XP. The only safe way to use it is with unrated pages blocked which means you will go crazy with the Content Adviser pop-up asking if you want to view the unrated page. Windows Vista and Windows 7 are far more useful being the basis for Windows Live Family Safety.

I don't recommend using browser add-ons for parental control because they are so easily bypassed. They do not work with all browsers and don't have enough features.

  • Parental Control Bar is a good example. It has website filtering with block lists and allow lists but no reporting, alerts, time restrictions, or filtering of email, internet messaging, etc. It installed a faulty add-on to Firefox, the KidTrackmonitor didn't work, and it has not been updated since September 2007.

I also looked at the following free child-safe browsers. I cannot recommend any of them for their parental controls.

  • KidzCD has a range of child-friendly browsers and they recommend Kidz Protection which manages access to software.
  • Kido'z has a trial version that you can use indefinitely but which does not provide access to the parental controls unless you pay for a subscription.
  • Kidrocket which appears to be unsupported.
Related Products and Links
Quick Selection Guide

Norton Safety Minder
3.5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Combines a web service with a stand-alone program
comprehensive; multiple profiles on each PC; settings stored with your account
the paid version is needed for time quotas and useful reporting; unblocking is time-consuming; no XP 64-bit
http://onlinefamily.norton.com/
2.1.0.37
11.7 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Feature limited freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows XP to Windows 7, MacOS 10.4.5+

64 Bit version available for Windows Vista to Windows 7 but not Windows XP

OpenDNS
3
 
Is a web service or web application
web based service works with all OS's + fast, effective blocking; faster browsing for many
too easy to avoid; one profile on each PC; some technical knowledge required; no desktop controls
https://www.opendns.com/
Windows, Mac, UNIX, mobile, etc
K9 Web Protection
3
 
Combines a web service with a stand-alone program
simple and effective; highly customizable
one profile on each PC; slower browsing; no controls for email, IM, games, etc.
http://www.k9webprotection.com/
4.0.296
0.7 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows XP to Windows 7, MacOS 10.4.7+
Windows Live Family Safety
2.5
 
Combines a web service with a stand-alone program
filtering works well; consolidates reporting across multiple PCs
controls depend on your Windows version (and its parental controls) and using Microsoft products
http://explore.live.com/
14.0.8117
1.2 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows XP SP2 - 7

Download for Windows XP is http://explore.live.com/windows-live-family-safety-xp Windows XP.
64 Bit version available for Windows Vista to Windows 7 but not Windows XP.

KidZui K2
2.5
 
Combines a web service with a stand-alone program
whitelisted sources; can start at startup; password to exit; also available are a Classic version and a Firefox add-on
limited application, only useful for young children; limited websites and functionality; easy to circumvent
http://www.kidzui.com/
http://www.kidzui.com/
6.0
1.5 MB
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Adobe Flash 9.0 or later for: Windows XP, Vista, 7. - Internet Explorer 6.0 or later; Mac OS 10.4.11 or later - Safari 3.0 or later

Apple Mac OS X download at http://www.kidzui.com/download/mac

Resources:
About, Support, Knowledgebase

Editor

This software review is copy-edited by Glyn Burgess. Please help edit and improve this article by clicking here.

Change Log
Date Change Editor
Oct 2011 No change to content. Convert the Quick Selection Guide to the new database. Remah
May 2011

Add a change log. Change headings. Add KidZui K2.

Remah
Dec. 2010 Review updated with Norton Safety Minder, Windows Live Family Safety, SafeSquid, FortiClient.

Remah

Dec. 2009 Review created.  
Tags
Parental control, parental filter, web filter, best parental control, best parental filter, top parental control, top parental filter

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Comments

by hamedg on 18. June 2014 - 10:53  (116815)

Let me add more to it.

OpenDNS is good but how difficult is it to bypass it ???? it takes less than 20 seconds to bypass it. your kid does not need to access the router . samge goes with any toolbar addons. if you want it secure you need to have multiple security layesrs. like:
1. OS: accounts with limited access so user can not make changes to network settings
2. Software: Good/Decent security products (like avast/etc...)
3. Network: if you are really concern decent/clever router which can do more clever things.

I can go on about this for days but the point is as some people mention here it will be really hard to control kids as they are getting more clever. if they want it they will find away around it. I am an I.T speciallist and have 2 boys and my god they are making it very challenging for me :)

by Remah on 18. June 2014 - 23:25  (116829)

This category looks at web filtering and doesn't attempt to describe how to child-proof a computer. That is why most of your points are not discussed here. But those issues are covered in many other articles on this site.

Regarding OpenDNS, the article mentions that such products/services are easy to bypass: "1. Gateway or proxy servers only need simple configuration changes on your PC or router. They don't manage usage nor a wider range of desktop activities. They also have a major weakness which makes the controls easy to sidestep: the DNS configuration can be changed just as simply as it was setup."

by Panzer on 14. October 2013 - 9:37  (111476)

Kidbox - browser for kids, aged 2 to 8:
http://www.kidbox.net/en/index.php

by jimcarter1959 on 12. April 2013 - 12:57  (107019)

I'm a PC tech and for a period of a few years starting around 2005 we recommended the Blue Coat K9 Web Protection to dozens of our home users. The application was advertised as "free and lifetime" for that group. Lo and behold all these years later, Blue Coat (without notice) decided to pull all these licenses the week prior to April 15th. Because the license pull cuts off Internet service, our customers are frantic because some really need their PCs prior to tax filing day. Most of these users remain--and always will--novices when it comes to anything but the basics with computers. We've had to coach dozens through the process of uninstalling the application. AVOID THIS APPLICATION AT ALL COSTS!

by Oboro on 6. March 2013 - 16:46  (105991)

It surprises me that no one mentioned [edited] as a parental control solution. I've been using for the largest part of the last decade and it really is one of the most complete solutions out there. My kids are now growing out of this, but they still use it as their starting point and managing their permissions is very easy and dispenses any sort of over the shoulder parenting. A solid recommendation for this one.

by Anupam on 6. March 2013 - 18:30  (105994)

This is a freeware site. Please do not mention/recommend/suggest commercial software. This is not allowed. Keep the suggestions to freeware only please.

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