What is Web Content Filtering?

It’s a regular Tuesday morning. One of your students checks their inbox and sees that they’ve received a new message. They click on a link and are redirected to a website they believe to be safe — if only that were the case.

In reality, they’ve just fallen victim to a phishing attack. And that link? It brought them to a malicious website that infected their device — and soon enough, your whole district — with dangerous malware.

If that story makes you shudder in horror, don’t worry: You’re not alone. Many schools have experienced this exact nightmare scenario. Fortunately, with the right content filter on your side, it’s also entirely avoidable.

Let’s talk about what makes web filtering so important and how it can help you protect students from harmful and malicious content online.

What is web content filtering?

K-12 web filtering is the process of blocking inappropriate content before it appears in front of students. The idea is that by restricting internet access to a set of specific websites, schools can keep minors safe from web activity that could do them harm.

Schools rely on a filtering solution — known more simply as a content filter — to facilitate this process on their behalf. Content filters can be hardware that’s physically installed on premises or software that’s installed on the network infrastructure. However, with the rise of cloud computing, more providers are offering cloud-based filtering software as a much more flexible alternative.

How do content filters work?

Web content filtering solutions generally leverage a few essential tactics to regulate internet access. These strategies include:

  • URL filtering: The content filter maintains a database of permitted URLs. When a student attempts to access one of these specific websites, the filtering software checks the URL against the database and either blocks or allows it based on your predefined rules.
  • Blocklists and allowlists: Similarly, content filters can be programmed to restrict blocklisted URLs. Think of these as the restricted section in the Hogwarts library — all the magical books that could do more harm than good in the hands of the wrong witch or wizard.
  • Keyword filtering: A web filter can also scan the content of web pages for specific words or phrases that could be associated with something inappropriate, such as adult content. If a match is found, access is denied.
  • Image and text analysis: With artificial intelligence, content filters inspect images, videos, and other media in real time to determine if they’re a threat.

What are the benefits of content filtering?

Filtering web activity has its advantages, both for your school district and its students. A high-quality content filter can:

  • Protect students from inappropriate content: The most obvious benefit of web filtering is that it prevents users from accessing anything that could do them harm, such as pornography or graphic violence. You may not realize it, but students are frequently searching for things they shouldn’t be at school. In fact, schools in New Zealand reportedly blocked over 399 million attempts to access inappropriate content in a single month.
  • Reduce the risk of malware infection: Blocking a website that’s known for malicious content is key to threat protection, as it keeps users from navigating those specific websites in the first place.
  • Eliminate distractions: Worried about social media and online games hindering the classroom experience? No problem. Content filters can be tailored to block social media sites and keep your learners focused on their schoolwork.
  • Lower school liability: Governments are encouraging school districts to improve network security and web protection. A content filtering solution can help you reduce liabilities and minimize the risk of lawsuits from parents whose children have been exposed to harmful, offensive, or illegal web activity.
  • Help you maintain E-rate eligibility: Web filtering is mandated by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which applies to any school receiving funding from the federal E-Rate program. If you’re not in compliance with CIPA regulations, you can lose eligibility and the discounts afforded by the initiative.

Why do schools need to filter web content?

As mentioned, CIPA requires schools to implement a technology protection measure that restricts internet access to minors. In other words, content filters are the rule — not the exception.

Aside from the law, web filtering has two vital functions: cyber safety and cybersecurity.

Use case: Cyber safety

The most pressing use of content filtering software is to address student well-being. Since the turn of the century, parents and school administrators alike have grown concerned about whether the material minors access online could be damaging to their mental/physical health and education.

So, the primary function of a web filter is to block anything deemed “inappropriate.” According to CIPA, inappropriate content includes any material that contains graphic image files or appeals to sex, nudity, or excretion. It also applies to anything that lacks serious literary, scientific, artistic, or political value to minors.

For example, schools might block access to websites that glamorize violent behavior or adult content.

Use case: Cybersecurity

The second function of web filtering is to block access to specific websites that could jeopardize a student’s personal information. Like the story we shared at the beginning of this blog, hackers often try to scam minors into sharing personal details or downloading attachments.

This is often how many school data breaches begin. By infecting the district with malware, cybercriminals can begin exfiltrating hoards of sensitive information. Then, the choice is theirs: Hold it ransom in exchange for large sums of money — hence “ransomware” — or sell it to the highest bidder on the dark web. Or both… Either way, schools are an increasingly lucrative target for sophisticated cyber attacks.

Ultimately, content filters play a small (but critical) role in your school’s threat protection strategy. That said, they’re not to be taken as the end-all, be-all solution — especially when it comes to the cloud.

3 myths about content filtering and cloud security

We’ve spoken to countless K-12 IT professionals over the years. Along the way, we’ve realized there are several startling misconceptions about content filters and the role they play in securing cloud-based data.

Luckily, we’re here to clear the air. Let’s talk about three key myths about content filtering and cloud security.

Myth #1: Content filters are too difficult for schools to implement

Back in the day, installing a content filtering meant having to physically set up a hardware contraption alongside your networking equipment. Then, you had to regularly maintain and upgrade it over time.

You might assume these pain points are still prevalent today. But the truth? Leveraging a content filtering solution has never been easier.

Cloud-based filters are delivered over the internet, meaning they can be up and running in a matter of minutes. No proxies, installations, or maintenance required — just set your policies and you’re good to go. They’re inherently scalable, which means you can freely add or remove devices without any additional effort.

Myth #2: You can “set and forget” about your filters

Content filters are as easy as flipping a switch, but that’s not to say you’re supposed to use them that way.

You may have a list of blacklisted URLs on day one. However, circumstances may change. A new social media site could rise to popularity. Hackers could launch a phishing campaign that flies under your radar.

It’s better to cover your bases and regularly revisit your category filters. Add any new rules or conditions that you may be missing, and remove any if you think you’ve gone too far.

Myth #3: You don’t need cloud security if you have a content filter

According to the 2019 K-12 Cybersecurity Report by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), virtually all schools are using a web content filter and a firewall of some variety. However, at the time of the report, only 3% of schools were using cloud security technology.

Today, about 20% of cybersecurity budgets are being allocated to safeguarding data stored in cloud applications. It’s a modest swing in the right direction, but nonetheless, schools are still woefully unprotected.

The truth about web content filters is that they can’t secure student and district data — particularly when that data is stored, accessed, and shared in Google Workspace and/or Microsoft 365. Blocking students from accessing malicious content is a solid foundation, but comprehensive threat protection is required if you want to close the gap.

Still confused about the relationship between content filtering and cloud security? Here’s an analogy:

  • Your web filter is the school bus. It safely transports students to and from school, but the bus never enters the school and can’t provide protection inside the building.
  • Your firewall is what secures access to the building: Doors, locks, metal detectors — anything that regulates movement. Securing access to the building ensures that unauthorized people can’t enter the school. It also ensures that students don’t leave without permission.
  • Cloud security tools are the safety measures that secure the inside of the building. School buses and locks aren’t infallible. That’s why schools have cameras, hall monitors, and campus resource officers. Administrators can use these tools to identify when an unauthorized individual is in the building, and when an authorized person is doing something they shouldn’t be.

So, although content filtering is a vital piece of the overall security strategy, it doesn’t do everything on its own. In other words, you still need an additional layer of protection safeguarding the cloud domain.

Content filtering best practices

There’s a right and wrong way to filter content. You don’t want to go overboard and censor harmless material, but you also don’t want anything to slip through the cracks.

Here are some best practices to get you started:

  • Establish a clear content filtering policy: Define exactly what you’ll filter out and what you won’t. More importantly, pledge to uphold student data privacy and regulate web activity on a fair and consistent basis for all students.
  • Involve instruction staff in the decision-making process: Your teachers and staff members may be the best resource you have. They likely know what students are talking about, how they’re behaving, and what they’re searching for online. Gather their thoughts about your policy and what it lacks.
  • Regularly assess and update your filtering software: Again, it’s critical to go back and review your policy over time. Conditions change and so should your filter — that way, you’re always protected.
  • Implement multi-layered security measures: Content filters are merely the first line of defense in a much bigger, comprehensive data security architecture. In addition to endpoint and network security, leverage a cloud security platform like ManagedMethods to secure your cloud applications.

As you look for the ideal filtering solution, prioritize a platform that bridges the gap with cloud security and data loss prevention capabilities. For instance, ManagedMethods’ new Content Filter tool is feature-rich with everything you need to provide a safe and secure environment for your students.

With AI-powered safety monitoring and an easy-to-use interface built natively into Google Workspace, you can rest assured your tracks are covered (and your students are protected).

Ready to get started? Schedule a demo of Content Filter today.

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