A recent study in the United Kingdom conducted by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford on the effectiveness of parental controls suggests that they may not be as effective as was thought at preventing minors from accessing online pornography.
While the study certainly adds to the body of evidence on the effectiveness of parental controls, such as those provided by Internet Service Providers, care should be taken interpreting the findings, especially comparing ISP parental controls with commercial web filtering solutions for schools.
The researchers suggest that their study “Delivered conclusive evidence that filters were not effective for protecting young people from online sexual material,” and such bold claims have naturally been reported in the media as ‘Internet controls not being effective’.
However, the study only assessed whether minors had encountered a single image of nudity or of a sexual nature. No internet filtering solution can be expected to block every single sexual image. The goal of parental controls is not to ensure that pornographic content cannot ever be accessed, only that the chance of it being accessed is reduced to a very low level.
Further, while controls can be put in place to block direct accessing of pornography, parental control filers can easily be bypassed through the use of VPNs and anonymizer services. If a minor wishes to gain access to pornography, it is easy to do so via an anonymizer service. Parental control filters put in place by Internet Service Providers do not block access to anonymizer services.
Search for “free anonymizer” in Google, access the site, and enter the URL of an adult site on a home network with parental controls in place, and you will discover exactly how easy it is to access adult content. Even easier, search for “bypass parental controls” and you will get a long list of options.
Commercial filters, such as those offered to schools and businesses, allow adult content to be blocked but also the use of anonymizer services to prevent filtering controls from being bypassed, providing greater protection – which is necessary in places of business and in schools. If an anonymizer is used and a commercial web filter is in place that blocks anonymizers, access will be denied, and the attempt will be recorded.
What is particularly worrying, is the suggestion that the findings of this study on the effectiveness of parental controls should be applied to schools. The researchers suggest in the paper “Our findings raise the question of whether mandatory state-funded Internet filtering in schools should still be regarded as a cost-effective intervention,” instead, the use of age verification tools or simply boosting educational strategies to support responsible online behavior should be explored.
Commercial web filtering solutions and parental controls solutions are not the same, and it is worth considering the following scenario. If a parent was to discover their child had viewed pornography at school and no filtering controls were in place to prevent access, would that parent agree with the school’s decision not to block pornography because a filter could potentially be bypassed? Or would a parent prefer a filter be put in place to make it harder for such content to be viewed?
The researchers do point out that more research is required to solidify the findings, specifically “to test Internet filtering in an experimental setting, done in accordance to Open Science principles.”
One thing is for certain, the use of web filters and parental controls to protect minors is certainly likely to continue to involve considerable discussion and the solution to the problem of minors accessing online material of a sexual nature is likely to involve a combination of technological controls, monitoring of internet access, and educational efforts.
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The importance of web filtering for businesses cannot be understated. Businesses can install a range of perimeter defenses, but if controls are not implemented to restrict the activities of employees, malware can easily be downloaded onto work devices. The cost of mitigating malware infections can be considerable. The NotPetya malware attacks last year cost Maersk around $300 million. The Ponemon Institute annual cost of a data breach study suggests the average cost of a data breach is now $3.6 million for large businesses.
There is no single software solution that can provide total protection for businesses. A range of security solutions are required to reduce risk to an acceptable level, and web filters are one such control that should now be used by all businesses.
A new campaign has been detected this week that demonstrates the importance of web filtering for businesses, highlighting one of the methods used to install malicious software on corporate devices. In this case, the aim of the campaign is to install adware, unwanted browser extensions, and PuPs, although this tactic is often used to install much more malicious software.
The individuals behind this campaign are using autogenerated content to create large quantities of websites that incorporate commonly used keywords related to popular celebrities and adult industry actors. The aim of the campaign is to get these webpages indexed by the search engines and appearing in the organic search engine listings. Individuals who search for these keywords are likely to be presented with these webpages.
Upon opening these webpages, a popup is launched that advises the user that their computer lacks the codecs and software necessary to play the video. To get the videos to play, they need to install a media player. If the end user chooses to install the media player, rather than the media player being installed, a bundle of other programs is downloaded and installed on their device. The campaign also directs users to webpages where they are encouraged to install browser extensions.
If an employee is actively searching for inappropriate website content, it is easy to see how that individual would proceed with a download, and in doing so, install any number of potentially malicious programs.
This is not a hypothetical situation – many employees do just that. A recent survey conducted by Spiceworks delved into the reasons why companies are increasingly using web filters. The primary reason was to prevent the installation of malware. Further, when asked about whether employees had caused problems by accessing inappropriate website content, 38% of respondents said they had experienced a data breach in the past 12 months as a result of employees visiting websites that were not necessary for work.
The survey also revealed the extent that employees are using the Internet for personal reasons. Out of the companies that had not implemented a web filter, it was estimated that 58% of employees were wasting more than 4 hours a week on personal internet use, while 26% of employees were wasting 7 or more hours on non-work-related websites. That adds up to 26 days a year lost by each of those employees.
A web filter can allow a company to improve the productivity of the workforce. Employees will always slack off from time to time, but web filters can help to reduce the number of lost hours. The survey showed that the percentages fell to 43% spending more than 4 hours a week on non-work-related sites and 18% spending more than 7 hours a week slacking off online when a web filter was deployed – a significant reduction in lost hours. Further, blocking social media websites saw the figure fall to 30% of employees wasting more than 4 hours a week on personal internet use.
Another important benefit of web filtering is to prevent the accessing of illegal website content. Companies can be legally liable for illegal activities by their employees, such as the downloading of copyright protected material through peer-to-peer file sharing networks. The survey revealed two thirds of companies were using their web filter to avoid legal liability and 84% were using a web filter to stop illegal activity online. Data leakage is also a serious concern. 57% of companies use web filters to prevent data leakage and hacking.
If you want to improve your security posture, reduce the potential for productivity losses, and reduce legal liability, a web filter and at least some form of content control is essential.
If you have yet to implement a web filter, are unhappy with your current provider, or would like further information on the importance of web filtering for businesses, call the TitanHQ team today for further information. A free trial is also available for WebTitan, the leading web filtering solution for businesses, to allow you to find out first hand the benefits that content control offers.