Premium vs. Basic Web Filtering:

What’s the Difference and Does It Matter?

All web filters are not created equal – so how do we tell the difference between standard web filters built for a corporate environment and those that are suitable for education? Why does this difference exist? Does it matter?

Corporate users have long dominated the direction of IT products and services – and with good reason. The corporate market is huge, with a projected $3.8 trillion dollars spent in 2019 – more than the GDP of France. Education meanwhile spends nowhere near as much, so it doesn’t get nearly as much attention from the big players. This is a challenge because educators’ needs are diverse from those of business. 

In the field of digital safety, these needs are more pronounced than others. Many of the tools we use in digital safety aren’t even present in the corporate world, and the concepts and ideas don’t follow through.

A corporate web filter, for example, might be there to ensure productivity by denying the major social networks, or head off a lawsuit by keeping porn from office PCs. However, it’s likely to serve other functions like preventing leaks of sensitive information and is often chosen on how little impact it will have on day-to-day operations.   

There are a number of education-focused vendors – some of whom offer a strong, premium web filter and digital safety offering, and others who have added these features to a broader set of tools like classroom management. It’s important to set these apart so we know we are doing best for the students in our care.  

The key signs your web filter wasn’t made for education

The filter is an add-on to a security suite – many security suites from major UTM vendors add URL filtering as an add-on. These URL lists often come from 3rd party vendors as the company isn’t invested in maintaining their own. These will do a good job of categorizing the surface of the web and are likely to be fairly easy to apply a blanket policy. Don’t expect the sort of AI functionality needed to address user-generated content and the websites students use to bypass these types of filters.  

Policy Tools are limited – in standard web filter configurations, there might be a simple policy for user groups pulled from AD. Educators know that flexible policies are essential because the ages and requirements of students in a given school can vary wildly. In addition, schools are more likely to use diverse systems, or modern cloud-based office suites like G-Suite, where a straight AD connection is no longer sufficient.  

Diversity of language is another area where schools have a rougher ride than most – so filtering needs to keep up. Any tool that can’t handleUnicodedomains with non-Latincharacters, oris unable to scan pages in non-English language will struggle to be effective in a school. This is particularly noticeable in filter solutions tacked on to IT management products for schools.BYOD, guest policies and authentication are other essential requirements, particularly in a larger school district. Many students want to bring their latest iPhone – but how can we ensure they’re filtered, and that their web usage is logged against their username? DNS based filters are good at blanket filtering, but authenticated access is non-existent. 

Logging is a key component of your digital safety efforts. Without evidentiary standard logging, it’s impossible to prove that a user has been up to no good. With additional legislation such as PREVENT being introduced frequently, it’s important your filter is capable of recording everything. 

Finally, your filter should be part of an education-focused suite. Some filter vendors produce only a web filter, or, more commonly are part of a larger security suite, including tools like DLP and Malware Sandboxing.

The sort of tools you might want if you have a security team at your school

Education users should look for filtering technology that sits as part of a wider suite of ed-tech products, usually, these will include digital monitoring tools, and perhaps classroom management. It’s also important to consider any integrations offered. True education-focused vendors will offer integrations with tools such as Google Classroom, SIS, or safeguarding record keeping. These kinds of integrations are a good sign your vendor cares about your environment and understands the workflows within a school.  

If you have a question or would like to learn more about Smoothwall’s leading web filter, please get in touch. We’d be happy to help.

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