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Filter your Internet where it comes into your house: At the router itself

Pornography is a problem, a big problem. It is far too easily accessible by anyone in the home, thanks to the Internet. It’s even getting difficult to avoid just stumbling upon pornography. In many homes today people, and especially children and teenagers, are accessing the Internet via mobile devices other than laptops and desktops, and these devices are often used in private places instead of main thoroughfares, where a computer might normally be. While technology is great, there are real dangers that we need to contend with.

Luckily there are some easy first steps you can take to protecting you and your loved ones in the home through the use of filters. Some techniques are more effective than others, but my favorite method for filtering home Internet is by using what are called alternate DNS servers. Instead of installing a piece of software on a computer (which only protects that computer, not any mobile devices or tablets or any other computers, and which often slows down the computer as well), you change a few settings that modify how you access the Internet. By routing your Internet requests to go through a trusted, filtering third-party, you can block access to pornographic or illicit material for the entire household, mobile devices included.

Other bonuses? Your Internet speeds may very well increase slightly, as opposed to going slower! Also, known fraudulent and phishing sites will also be blocked. Excellent.

A little background: Alternate DNS Servers? Sounds complicated…

Don’t worry, it’s actually pretty easy. Let’s say you wanted to go to google.com, and so you type that into your browser. Behind the scenes, your computer is looking up a numbered address for Google, which is how it knows where to go to get the page. The computer will do this lookup on the Internet through something called a DNS server, and get the answer back: 173.194.115.5. With this number in hand, your browser can now go and actually connect to google.com and download the page for you.

Simple explanation of a DNS server request
A very simple explanation of how a DNS request gets you to a page on the Internet.

It’s similar to a street address. Your friend John might live down the street from you, and so you know how to get to John’s house. But if you need to send John a letter, you have to figure out what his actual address might be: 123 Somewhere St. Your computer needs the same type of instructions for finding websites, because the address google.com doesn’t actually mean much to the computer.

These DNS servers end up being pretty important: without them you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere on the Internet. Typically your Internet provider runs a set of DNS servers for all of their customers, but doesn’t do any filtering on it. There are other providers out there, such as OpenDNS (my favorite), that provide free, filtered services that you can use to replace your Internet provider’s version of the same.

When you get yourself set up with a provider like OpenDNS, everything continues as normal when you try to access google.com. However, if someone in your house tries to go to badwebsitex.com, the OpenDNS servers see that request, know it is bad, and return a different numbered address that redirects you to a block page, instead of the real address of the website. This happens nearly instantly (seriously, we’re talking tens of milliseconds), providing extremely effective filtering. It’s my absolute preferred way of filtering your home Internet.

Side note: I’m currently working on a little app that can automate much of this process for you, so that you don’t have to figure out any of that router stuff. If you’re interested in learning more, you can sign up here:

Where do you set up such a filter?

The most effective way to start using alternative DNS services to filter your Internet is by changing settings on your router. You know, that box that cables come into and WiFi signals come out of? Probably has a lot of flashing lights on it? By changing the appropriate settings here, every device in your home that is using your home WiFi or wired network will flow through the new, filtered DNS servers. This is obviously much more effective and much easier than going around to each individual device, changing settings, hoping they don’t get changed back, etc. And when you get a new phone, tablet, or computer, they are automatically covered as well.

You certainly can (and might as well should) change these same settings on your devices too, as a backup. But if you can cover ever device in your house that connects to the network, you’ll feel much safer. One caveat to note is that for devices with cellular connections like phones, switching off WiFi and going just over the cell connection means that Internet delivered over the cell connection may not be protected.

Setting up OpenDNS on your router

There are a few different providers and different methods for setting up such a filter, but I’m going to focus on the most straightforward option for now: using OpenDNS’s Family Shield DNS servers. This service provider’s preset filters block adult websites as well as known fraudulent and phishing sites.

To start using this service, sign up on the Family Shield website. There you can sign up for updates about the service should something change. It will also give you the IP addresses of their two filtered DNS servers: 208.67.222.123 and 208.67.220.123.

Armed with those two numbers, you now have a bit of a challenge ahead of you: configuring your home router to use these new servers. Thankfully, OpenDNS provides guides for many different brands of routers that can help you determine how to do this in your home. You can also find a technically-savvy friend, explain what you’re trying to do, and they could probably help you out.

Finally, you’ll want to check that everything is set up and working correctly. Visit the following link from each device that you want to test, including mobile devices, to see if it reports success:

https://store.opendns.com/settings

Next Steps: Please talk with your family

Filtered Internet is a wonderful thing, and is a huge step towards providing a safer online environment for your family. But no filter will be 100 percent effective, and your family members aren’t always going to be accessing it from within your protected home network. There is no substitute for open and honest discussions with all of your family members about how to handle inappropriate content.

There are many great resources out there to help (see Arm Your Kids for the Battle, and others). As you counsel together with those you love, you will all be able to come to a better understanding of the dangers that do exist online and how to deal with them as a family. Open communication will strengthen relationships and ties and help overcome problems that may arise later.

I firmly believe that a family that uses an Internet filter has just that much more of a chance of avoiding things that they do not want to see or have problems with, and you can do something about it today.

Side note: I’m currently working on a little app that can automate much of this process for you, so that you don’t have to figure out any of that router stuff. If you’re interested in learning more, you can sign up here:

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