Cloud-based content filtering, explained

It’s an open secret that the internet can be a dangerous place. And, as much as you’d like to believe students are abiding by your safe search guidelines, the truth is that malicious websites are constantly putting your district at risk.

From adult content and violence to malware and phishing scams, there’s an ever-growing number of cyber threats to keep on your radar. And the scariest part? All of them are only a few clicks away.

Think about it: What would happen if a student fell victim to a malware threat? Would it stop at their device, or could it expose your entire school district? What if students were sexting each other on school-provided hardware? What if hackers got their hands on that?

The fact of the matter is that these what-if scenarios aren’t just hypothetical — they’re grounded in reality. When inappropriate content and harmful behavior fall through the cracks, it has the potential to impact everyone. That’s where a content filter comes into play.

But not just any web filter can do the trick. Cloud-based solutions are your best bet to keep students and their data safe from malicious attacks, phishing sites and harmful content. So, let’s explore the world of cloud-based content filtering and how it can protect your district from cyber risk.

What is cloud-based content filtering?

Web content filtering is the process of blocking inappropriate content and restricting internet access throughout your school district. The concept is simple: Prevent students from navigating to malicious sites so that they can’t view harmful content in the first place.

Schools facilitate this process using a tool called a “content filter,” also known as “filtering software” or a “web filter.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: a solution that automatically regulates the school network by running web traffic through a control mechanism — hence the name “filter.”

In simple terms, a cloud-based filter is delivered over the internet by a third-party provider. That means you don’t have to worry about physically installing it on your school infrastructure. Typically, it involves using a remote server, hosted in the cloud, to analyze and categorize web content in real time, thus determining whether it should be allowed or blocked based on predefined criteria.

Why does content filtering matter to K-12 school districts?

In today’s digital school system, few technologies are as essential as a filtering solution. Why? Most significantly, because it’s a legal requirement.

According to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), public schools and libraries must implement various threat protection measures to continue receiving federal E-Rate funding. This includes the use of a content filter to block material that could be considered:

  1. Obscene
  2. Child pornography
  3. Harmful to minors
  4. Illegal

More generally, inappropriate content is classified as anything that has no educational value, such as adult content or gaming sites. If you violate CIPA compliance, your school could lose important E-Rate discounts.

Of course, regulations are just one side of the coin. Schools have a responsibility to protect students from malicious content that could damage their emotional well-being and social development. For instance, graphic depictions of sex or violence could be traumatizing to young students. Moreover, if users are searching for information about violent acts (such as a school shooting) it may be indicative of a bigger underlying issue.

Finally, schools must safeguard sensitive information against unauthorized access and exposure. By blocking malicious websites, you can prevent students from touching anything that could result in a malware injection, phishing attack, or other nefarious cyber threat.

What are content filters used for?

Given everything we’ve discussed already, content filters are a key piece of your school’s web security strategy. Think of them as your first line of defense against malicious attacks, as they stop these incursions from happening in the first place.

Likewise, they effectively uphold student safety, as they’re capable of blocking inappropriate content before users can view it on their screens. This goes a long way toward strengthening mental health and physical well-being.

And, without question, a high-quality web filter can ensure you never lose sight of CIPA compliance.

Types of content filtering technologies

Content filters are like Skittles in that they cover every flavor of the rainbow.

In other words, web filtering solutions come in many forms. Generally, you can break them down into two categories: cloud-based content filters and appliance-based content filters.

Cloud-based vs. appliance-based filtering

Appliance-based content filters are traditional on-premise solutions. They’re hardware devices that must be installed locally within the school network. They function as standalone units designed to process local web traffic — meaning they only filter content for users who are connected to your network.

Cloud-based content filtering tools offer several key advantages:

  • Scalability: Cloud-based filters are deployed within minutes, with no need for a cumbersome installation process. If you want to roll out the filter to a new device, you simply need to enable the extension and you’re ready to go.
  • Uptime: On-premise solutions use fewer servers than cloud solutions, which means they’re more susceptible to being taken offline by an overload of data. Cloud filters use many remote servers, affording them much greater capacity to weather a high volume of traffic.
  • Cost: Not only do appliance-based solutions have to be installed, they must also be physically maintained. The related costs can add up over time. Cloud solutions can be deployed as a service, meaning you pay a fixed rate every month and can rapidly update the tool without interrupting operations or adding extra staffing.

Although these systems offer an ideal alternative to traditional content filtering, one notable downside exists. Because cloud-based tools are delivered as a service, you have to share your school’s web traffic data with a third party. Schools are subject to strict data privacy regulations that vary from state to state. Moreover, administrators may be reluctant to give third-party vendors access to their sensitive data. Vendors have often been linked back to accidental data breaches over the past few years. In fact, third-party vendors were responsible for 55% of school data breaches between 2016 and 2021.

The simplest way to offset this risk is by identifying a service provider with a demonstrated commitment to student data privacy and compliance.

Types of web filtering solutions

Under the umbrella of cloud-based content filters, there are several options at your disposal. These include:

  • Browser-based filters: Lightweight tools that are implemented via browser extensions.
  • Email filters: They analyze content within emails and attachments to accept or reject the message.
  • Network-based filters: Implemented at the transport and application level to analyze traffic as it flows through routers and other network devices.
  • DNS (Domain Name System) filters: These control access to websites based on domain name. They intercept DNS requests and check them against blacklisted URLs and those that are permitted.

How does cloud-based content filtering work?

Content filters operate using a combination of basic and advanced tactics. These include:

  • Keyword filtering: The filtering solution scans the content of specific websites for words, phrases, and expressions that may be inappropriate, such as discussion of graphic violence.
  • Content-based filtering: Using artificial intelligence (AI), filtering software scans images, text, video, and other media sources. This allows the system to recognize harmful or adult content and promptly block access to that material.
  • Reputation-based URL filtering: Sometimes, malicious sites are easy to spot. In fact, there are many known websites schools are warned to stay away from. Content filters can check web traffic against these lists to ensure that none of them are slipping by your defenses.
  • Blocklists and allowlists: IT administrators can also curate their own sets of unauthorized and permitted websites. This gives you the freedom to customize category filters to your liking and tailor the user experience accordingly.

What do these tactics look like in practice? Let’s discuss. The general workflow should appear something like this:

  1. Your cloud-based content filter is turned on and ready to go.
  2. Predefined rules dictate what content the system should block and allow from the start.
  3. IT administrators can adjust rules and policies as needed from one comprehensive dashboard.
  4. When inappropriate content is identified, it will be blocked. The platform notifies administrators of the violation with details about who was responsible for the action, when and where it occurred, as well as what website they attempted to access.

This process can be refined over time, but its iterative nature allows you to continuously improve your policies as student behaviors change. That way, you can proactively guard against cyber threats throughout the school year.

Key features of content filtering solutions

Content filters may fulfill the same basic function, but they’re not all made with the same capabilities. When shopping for a solution, look for a tool with the following features:

  • Google Admin integration: 84% of schools use Google Workspace. As the most popular cloud domain, it’s essential your web filter can service this layer of internet activity. Content Filter by ManagedMethods integrates natively within the Google Admin console, allowing you to implement it right from the same interface.
  • AI-powered student safety monitoring: Students are leaving breadcrumbs with their cloud activity. If you follow them, you just may uncover a student safety risk. Whether it’s cyberbullying or self-harm, our AI-driven Content Filter empowers you to detect critical signals, keywords, and phrases that indicate an at-risk individual.
  • Out-of-the-box categories: Student safety can’t wait. You need a web filter that can protect your district right out of the gate. The best tools come fully equipped with category filters and blocklists to get you up to speed in a hurry. Our Content Filter platform supports over 30 website categories, allowing you to create policies for school-issued Chromebooks and Chrome browsers.
  • Social media blocking: Deploy a solution that can be configured to block social media sites, including Reddit and YouTube.
  • Device tracking: Recover lost and stolen school devices with the help of your filtering software. Some tools allow you to see a device’s last known location and which accounts were logged into it, helping you track it down and keep it safe.
  • Data privacy: Most importantly, look for a service provider that won’t let you down, exploit student data, or create profiles of students based on their information.

Never allow inappropriate content to slip through undetected again. With Content Filter by ManagedMethods, you can rest assured that students are well-protected against online threats and toxic behavior.

As a cloud-based browser extension, you can leverage our AI-powered features within minutes. And the best part? All these capabilities happen within the browser — no impact on the end user experience.

Ready to take it for a spin? Book your demo today for a closer look at how Content Filter can protect your students and help you maintain CIPA compliance.

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