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Filtering Your Home Network via OpenDNS: What Parents Need To Know Part I – What is OpenDNS?

Most parents want to protect their children from inappropriate and harmful material on the Internet.  The problem is:  HOW?

Well, it boils down to two battlefields:  Your home Internet connection and network, and….everywhere else!

With devices attached to your network, either by cable or WI-FI, you can filter out inappropriate web-based materials in one of two ways:

  • Put a filtering program on every device, and hope no one adds a device that is not filtered, or
  • Filter the entire network at the point where it hits your home: The router.

The first is an expensive and never-ending fight as computers, game consoles, tablets, and other devices come and go.  That’s why the second option is the most attractive:  Filter the Internet at the entry point, and you don’t care what devices come and go.  If they use your network to access the Web, they are filtered.

Fortunately, this is very inexpensive.  In fact, one of the best products for doing this is offered for FREE.  It’s called OPENDNS, and I consider it the “seat-belt for the Internet”.

Let’s look at how this can protect your family, including the husband and wife, too!

To start out, we need to understand  DNS.

DNS is a techie term that stands for Domain Name Server.  Essentially, it is a phone book for the Internet.

You see, just like every phone has a unique phone number, every web site has a unique IP number that is tied to the web address that we type in.  For instance, the IP address (or phone number) for www.cnn.com is 157.166.255.18.

When you type in www.cnn.com your computer goes to the DNS server (phone book) to look up the IP address (phone number) and then makes the connection, calling up the www.cnn.com home page.  Check out the diagram, below.

How DNS Works

If you want a more in-depth explanation you can read the Wikipedia article HERE.

Our computer or device will use the DNS server that your network is set up to use, usually your Internet provider’s DNS server.  This will normally be a huge, unfiltered “phone book”.  If you have a router or gateway (and almost all of us do) then the IP addresses (phone numbers) to the DNS servers are set there.

OpenDNS uses this procedure to filter your entire network by creating a unique, custom DNS listing (phone book) for you based upon the preferences you set up in your OpenDNS account.  You then set your router to “point” to the OpenDNS servers that also keep track of YOUR IP address.  That way, when the OpenDNS server receives a look-up request (“What is the IP address for www.cnn.com?”) they will note that it came from YOUR router, check against YOUR custom phone book, and then connect YOUR computer to the desired web site.

But, if you type in an address that is NOT in your custom DNS listing (phone book), then it is impossible for the DNS server to connect you because it can’t find the number!  If someone in your household types in www.playboy.com, and you have the pornography category blocked, then the IP number (phone number) for www.playboy.com is not even in the phone book set up for your account!  If you can’t find it, you can’t get there! SIMPLE!

That is a very basic explanation, but it is very accurate.  And, keep in mind, OpenDNS provides a lot of choice through more than 50 categories!  Plus, you can have white lists (“never block this site”) and black lists (“always block this site”).

So, if you want to filter your entire network you only have to choose the version of OpenDNS to use, create an OpenDNS account, change the filter settings to your liking, and change the settings on your router (the OpenDNS folks have great instructions for major router brands, too!).  Then wait about 3-10 minutes for the servers to update your custom “phone book” and BAM! you are filtered!

If Uncle Buck visits and brings a laptop you can safely let him on your network knowing that his laptop/iPad/etc is filtered!  Same for the your daughter’s BFF and her iPad.

There are three versions of OpenDNS for home use.  Two are free, and one is only $19.95 per year.  Which one you select depends on your needs and level of comfort.  Some may do just fine with the free versions (I do) but some folks may want the extra features of the VIP edition.  For those who are not confident in configuring things the FamilySheild version may be best.

A couple of final points about OpenDNS:

  • OpenDNS filters access to web sites based on the primary content of the site.  It either lets you on the site, or it doesn’t.  OpenDNS doesn’t filter some content but allow other content all on the same site.  A site is either completely blocked, or not at all.  That means that sites like hbo.com, or apps like HBO GO, if they are not blocked in their entirety, will not have adult content filtered unless you also use the HBO GO parental controls.(You might want to read my posts “HBO GO & MAX GO – What Parents Need To Know”  and “NETFLIX Streaming – What Parents Need To Know” for information on these vulnerabilities and what do to about them.)
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  • OpenDNS will filter devices such as iPads, iPods, tablets, etc. that are connected via WI-FI.  But, it only filters the web browser.  It doesn’t filter everything.  It may not filter content within specific apps (like iTunes, etc.), even if they are pulling content over the Internet.
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  • OpenDNS will filter the web browsers on game systems such as Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii.  It does not filter the console games, etc..
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  • ATT UVERSE CUSTOMERS:  Because of the way the Uverse hardware operates you have some extra steps and costs.  Mainly, you have to buy a separate router and run it through the Uverse gateway’s DMZ.  (Don’t worry, your local geek can help with that!) I’ve been running OpenDNS on my Uverse system for more than 3-4 years, so it works well; you just have to perform some extra steps when setting up!  See PART IIfor more information about this!UPDATE/OCT 2013: This is now applying to more and more VERIZON customers, as well.
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  • Your OpenDNS set-up does not filter items not using your network, such as smart phones.

OpenDNS is a very simple way for parents to protect their families from inappropriate materials online.  In PART II I will talk about options and provide tips on how to configure, secure , and manage your OpenDNS account in order to protect both kids and adults!  Check it out HERE!

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