Parental Control Software: Features Guide

Last Update: March 2009

I did not choose to perform a full test of these products, though it would be great if someone did!

However, this article will cover many of the features to consider in selecting Parental Control software. The interested reader could make up a spreadsheet with these features down one column, and each program to be considered can then be compared in the subsequent columns.

The Feature Sets listed below were compiled from product advertising as well as the well-done reviews that can be found at:

Top Ten Reviews:  http://www.TopTenReviews.com

Filter Review Blog: http://www.Filterreview.com

Feature Sets:

Filtering Algorithm:
Location: Where is the filtering mechanism locataed - local on the computer, proxy to a Web Server, or both?
Filtering Algorithm Type: URL, Keyword, or Content?
URL filtering provides a listing of known prohibited sites based the "Uniform Resource Locator" (URL) such as "www.badsite.com".Maintaining a current list is a challenge, but URL blocking is a simple method for a majority of prohibited sites.
Keyword based filtering looks for prohibited keywords such as "sex" or "nude" and blocks sites based on this wordlist. Simple keyword filtering will block many sites that are likely okay, as even this site now has those "bad" words! More sophisticated programs will use algorithms that look at words in context, and will try to distinguish, say, "Breast Cancer" from "breasts", for example.
ICRA Ratings: Web providers can voluntarily provide Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) labels on their site that provide content rating information. Some filters can restrict sites based on these ratings. Since this is a voluntary service and not all providers need to comply with it (and many may not even know about it), this would not be sufficient by itself, but may be good as an additional check.
Content Analysis: Programs may provide additional content analysis of websites that is proprietary to that program. For example, certain specialized web visitor counters are supplied by a number of web pornography suppliers, which would immediately identify these sites as being related to the pornography industry and thus blocked.Other programs may analyze the amount of "skin color" photos on a site and block accordingly. Such a mechanism alone may block medical websites.
Dynamic or Static Categorization: Can the program allow or block websites based on changing content? For example, a news web-site may occassionally have a story that would be objectionable.

Filtering Capabilites:
Filter Categories: Some control software is focused only on pornography, others provide multiple categories for blocking and refining your web filtering. Some example categories are: Pornography, Sports, Violence, and Gambling. Sports blocking may be valuable at an employer so that employees don't spend lots of time tracking sporting events and scores.
White/Black Listing: A white list is a listing of websites that are always allowed. A black list is a listing of websites that are never allowed. Does the program support both types of lists? If so, are you allowed to customize these lists?
Sub-domain blocking or allowing: In some cases filters will block free webpage providers, since these hosts may often contain objectionable material. However, they may also be used for your local cub-scout group. Does the software allow you to make exceptions for a particular web-site or sub-domain?
Chat Filtering & Blocking: Can you block all chat rooms, or can you block "bad words" in chat sessions? Some programs provide "predator" detection to look for chat conversation such as "what is your address", and "would you like to meet". Children should be taught to never provide personal information, but sometimes they can be lured by a predator.
Personal Information Blocking: related to the above, some programs monitor for information that you have entered in as prohibited, like the child's full name, address, phone number and so forth. When detected, the software will not allow that information to be sent. This may also be helpful in preventing on-line ordering without your consent.
Newsgroup Blocking: can you block newsgroups? Newsgroups are not as popular as they once were, but this also makes them a prime avenue for hackers and pornographers as the may go "under the radar" of normal web traffic.
Instant Messaging (IM) Blocking: Can you block or restrict the use of Instant Messaging services?
Peer to Peer (P2P) Blocking - Can you block or restrict the use of Peer-to-Peer services such as Gnutella, Kazaa, Morpheus, and Limewire? These services can have legitimate uses, but are also often used for downloading copyrighted music and videos, as well as pornographic material. In addition, the software also opens up your computer to be "shared" for downloading this software to other users (thus the Peer-to-Peer portion). This has the potential to involve your computer in illegal activities, or to open it up for malicious viruses.
Social Networking Filtering and Blocking: Does the software provide the ability to block or limit social network sites like MySpace and Facebook? These sites are often used to make personal contact.
FTP Blocking: can the software block File Transfer Protocol sessions?
Email Filtering and Blocking: Can the software block or limit e-mail use? If so, is it limited to programs like Outlook Express, or does it work with Web-mail services like Yahoo and GMail?
Popup Blocking: Can the program eliminate "popup" windows in the browser? They usually contain advertisements, and are often unpredictable as to what they will show. There should also be the option to over-ride this blocking, as even sites such as Microsoft.com sometimes use pop-up windows in the process of downloading a software update.
Customizable Port Blocking: Does the software have the flexibility to block other software ports? This could be useful as new and emerging Internet tools are released.

Monitoring (see also reporting):
Web Sites Visited: Does the software record all web sites visited?
IM/Chat capture: Can the program capture instant messaging or chat sessions?
Screen Capture: Can the program capture screen images? Some software can capture screen images when certain triggers are set off (such as a keyword or a prohibited website is visited). Others can capture on demand (some even remotely), or periodically, such as every 30 seconds.
Keylogging: Can the program capture all the text as it is typed?
Application Monitoring: Does the software record all programs that have been run on the computer?

Reporting:
Reporting Location: Are the reports kept on the local PC, or can you access them elsewhere, such as on the Web, or are they e-mailed to you? The danger of keeping them local only is that a savvy user may be able to delete or modify the records. The danger of having them online is that your privacy has more opportunities to be breached.
Notification Alerts: Can the software alert you to prohibited behavior, such as a chat session with a suspected predator? Some programs can send e-mail alers, and some even have the capability to call you on your cell phone.
Reporting Features: Can the reporting be customized? Can you view all activity, and then filter for just prohibited website attempts, for example? Can you get a summary of events?
Graphical Reporting: Are graphical summaries available?
Report Retention: How long are the reports kept? Especially for on-line systems, only a limited amount of logging data might be maintaied. Also, can you save the data to your own server for long term storage?

Management Capabilities:
User Profiles: Is the monitoring based on the entire computer, on the Windows or Mac login identity, or on a custom login? There are tradeoffs for each.
Computer based: monitoring works for any user of the computer. The advantage is that someone can't log in as someone else. The disadvantage if there are multiple users is that you may not be able to tell who mis-used the computer.
Computer Login-based: This requires you to set-up Windows or Macintosh login accounts for each user of the PC. This is best for security, but is not the most convenient. As long as each user keeps his or her password secret, accountability can be traced to the individual (though the savvy brother or sister might figure out how to hack into his or her siblings account!)
Applicaiton based profiles: Some software will require the individual to log into the Parental Control software and will base all logging and monitoring on that login.
Password Controls: Are they local or remotely administered? Local passwords may be hacked by a savvy user. A few Web-based systems don't even provide the adult the ability to change filtering without proper authentication to them. In general, local passwords are more convenient, but in some homes taking this out of local control might be advised.
Remote Management: Can you access the filtering and monitoring controls from anywhere, or do you need to be at the local computer?
Stealth Mode: Can the monitoring software be operated without the users knowing it? In general, I believe monitoring should be open and advertised.

Other Features:
System Type: Is the software designed for home users, schools, or an enterprise environment?
Licensing: How many computers does the license cover? Some pricing is per computer, but more and more products seem to cover three or five computers, which is good since many homes are setting up local area networks with multiple computers.
Immediate Override: Can an authorized user over-ride a blocked website? Often it is obvioius that the intended site is okay.
Warning: Some programs allow you to set up a warning message before a site is accessed, and then allows you to move ahead if you choose.
Daily Time Limits: You can set a certain time that a user is allowed to use the Internet. Some programs provide very detailed scheduling capabilities per user.
Time Limit Expiration: Does the time limit just stop, or is the user warned the time is almost up? Can the user request an additional few miniutes? This could be valuable if trying to save a game or even a homework assignment since often the Internet takes much longer than anticipated.
Performance: Does the software impact daily use of the computer? There is usually some level of impact on Internet speed, but is should be minimal.
Updates: How are rule-set and filter updates managed? Is it automatic or manual, and is there additional cost?

Compatibility:
Operating Systems: Most programs are oriented toward Microsoft Windows, but some don't yet support Vista. Also, what about Apple Macintosh and Linux systems?
Browsers: Some programs are targeted only toward specific browsers, others are browser agnostic. Does it support Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox, Opera, Safari, etc.?
Internet Service Provider Support: If it is not an ISP service, will the program interfere with your current ISP?

Help/Support Options: Help, Documentation, Technical Support
Price: Is the software a one-time purchase, or is there a yearly licensing fee? Like anti-virus software, most filtering software comes as a subscription, since the software rules and filters must be constantly updated.
Demonstration Version: is a free trial version available? You really should try out the software to see how much it interferes with your daily tasks before spending money on it.
How stable is the company? Will the database be constantly updated? Will you get your year's worth of service?
Help and Technical Support: If you are a technical user, you might not need much technical support. Many parents will need extensive documentation and the ability to reach out to technical support, however, to get the system up and running and to ensure it is set up correctly so that it cannot be easily bypassed. Is there a phone number to call, or an online forum to ask questions?