When was the last time you updated the child protection software on your family computers? One year? Two years? Three years? Perhaps it’s time to take a good look at your system and how it copes with the seedy side of the brave new cyberworld.

First the sad truth: no matter what technical measures parents take to protect their children from the damaging influence of so-called “adult materials”, your average tech-savvy youngster can undo them in a flash. It is a fact that there are many ways to take complete control of a computer and an internet connection, from tinkering with the settings of parental control programs to temporarily installing a complete operating system that will leave no trace of its activity for prying parental eyes.

In the interests of not putting ideas in the minds of innocent youngsters we will say no more on this subject, but it is important that parents are aware that these possibilities exist. They should at least let their children know that they are aware of the possibilites for overriding controls.

But despite this, it is still crucial that parents do what they can to protect their children. Most important of all is that they take the trouble to install an internet filter on all family computers. Even though, as we have already pointed out, it is possible for a knowledgable youngster to override even the best filters, it is still necessary to have them installed to protect the vast majority of children – the innocent kids who are not looking for harmful materials, but who may fall victim to mishaps or even a momentary attack of curiosity.

Bewildering variety

There are dozens of internet filters on the market and the list of features grows constantly. It starts with simple web filtering and extends to mind-boggling parental controls that can restrict everything from the time kids can spend on the computer to the programs and games they can use. They can even give parents complete logs of each child’s online activities.

It can all be a bit bewildering for parents who don’t have time to sit down and study the merits and flaws of all the programs on the market. Often reviews of the latest software can increase, rather than resolve the confusion, partly because different reviewers often contradict each other: while one program can get five stars and top billing from one reviewer, it can be panned by another.

The main reason for this is that judging the merits of filters can be a very subjective activity, particularly given the wide range of features that the latest filters offer. If you want to get an insight into the extent of these features, you could start by visiting the study carried out by the web site Top Ten Reviews at http://internet-filter-review.toptenreviews.com.

The article rates programs on the basis of their feature sets, ease of use, ease of setup and filtering effectiveness, before going on to examine more than 40 sub-categories on which the programs can be judged.

Before you start to panic, it is important to remind yourself that most popular filtering programs will protect kids from the occasional mishap. Any of the market leaders – ContentProtect, CYBERsitter, NetNanny, CyberPatrol and FilterPak – will block harmful sites. Even the programs that attract lower scores in some review articles do so often because they block harmless sites rather than because of a failure to block the bad ones.

Even free web filtering software can be reasonably satisfactory. After experimenting with We-Blocker and Parental Filter for several years, we have found that Parental Filter works with all web browsers, but it tends to be a bit too demanding, often blocking harmless sites. We-blocker only works with Internet Explorer, but it doesn’t seem to be as intrusive as Parental Filter.

There are quite a few other free programs available for download from sites like download.com and tucows.com – sites which also offer reviews of each one.

At these sites you will also find parent control software and internet filters for Apple Mac computers. We found several shareware programs (including Safe Eyes, Intego Content Barrier and Kids Go Go Go), but there don’t appear to be any freeware programs available.

Upgrading to Windows Vista

One of the biggest events in recent times where internet filtering is concerned has been the release of Microsoft’s latest version of Windows – Windows Vista, which comes with a comprehensive range of parental controls. Given that it is usually estimated that Windows is run on about 90 per cent of desktop computers, this is a highly significant event. (Some Linux and Apple Mac enthusiasts may query the 90 per cent figure, but it is beyond doubt that Windows still has overwhelming dominance of the PC market.)

One negative thing about Vista is that you may find the filtering software you have been using up to now will not work. We tried to install several programs and most of them failed to run. But because Vista comes with its own built-in parent controls, you may decide that you don’t need any other program anyway. The Vista parental controls appear to be both effective and comprehensive – certainly more comprehensive than most freeware programs.

The Parental Controls come in all the different versions of Vista, including the Basic edition, and are easily activated. All you need to do to get them working is to create a separate user account for your child and then go into the Windows Control Panel, click on Parental Controls and activate it for your child’s account.

There are many options to choose from. The web filter is set on “Moderate” by default, which is probably the best setting. The “High” setting blocks access to all web sites, the only exceptions being those sites which you physically enter into an exception list. This heavy-handed approach may be okay for the youngest web users who you may want to restrict to only a handful of safe web sites, but is unsuitable for older children who need to use the internet to research their homework and school projects.

Even with the “Moderate” setting you will find that some apparently harmless sites can sometimes be blocked. We were concerned when the first two sites we tried, the Sydney Morning Herald site and The Australian newspaper site were both blocked. To override the block, we only had to enter the password for the administrator’s account to give access to the sites. And after this initial hiccup, we worked our way through a list of 100 harmless sites and not one of them was blocked.

We then worked our way through a long list of known “adult” web sites and all of them were blocked.

Apart from specifically pornographic sites, the Vista parental controls can also be set to block sites with information on bomb-making, hate speech, weapons, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling and sex education.

Another filter allows parents to set specific hours that a child can use the computer during any particular week.

Another section provides a games filter that can be set to block game playing altogether, to set ratings for the level of games that are acceptable right up to M15+, or to block specific games.

The filter can also be set to allow or block access to specific programs on the computer. This works well with most programs, but we found what appears to be a serious flaw in its operation which will hopefully be corrected in the future. While this filter will block programs like Windows Media Player when they are opened as stand-alone programs, it won’t stop a user from using them as a plug-in, or “add-on” program, in a web browser, including in Windows own browser, Internet Explorer.

What this means is that when a child tries to open up Media Player to play an MP3 music file or a video file, their attempt will be blocked. But if they log on to the internet, and open up Internet Explorer, they can play the same MP3 or video file while they are online.

You could always try turning off particular plug-ins by going into your Web Browsers settings (in Internet Explorer it is: Tools/Internet Options/Programs/Add-ons), but then there is nothing to stop a user from simply turning them back on again. Once they have done so, they can then go to any site on the internet and watch videos or play music or games – unless, of course, you use the settings in the Parental Controls to block access to individual sites.

Despite this drawback, the Vista parent controls are an important advance for Windows users. Even as they are, they will be helpful to parents and they will no doubt be improved over time. If you are not happy with their shortcomings, you could try one of the other parental control programs on the market. Another alternative, as the accompanying MercatorNet article indicates, is to try a different operating system altogether, like one of the many versions of Linux. But one thing is clear – this battle is only just beginning.

Bill James is a freelance IT journalist in Sydney, Australia.