Creating a safe internet environment at home – Part2/3: Tech Basics

Most households today have a fixed internet service in their home-typically provided by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that could be your phone company or a cable company or some such provider. There is typically an internet router that connects to the internet on one side through the modem provided by the ISP and on the other side creates a Wifi network to which multiple computers, smartphones and other devices in the home can connect. To effectively control internet access in your home network, it is important to understand two concepts – IP address and DNS.

IP Address

An IP address is simply a unique number that any computer or device in your home acquires when it connects to your Wifi router. When you connect to a website on the internet, your computer needs to send messages to the remote computer server on which the website is running. At the same time the remote web server needs to send the website data back to your computer. IP addresses are how the two computers identify and connect to each other over the internet. The Internet is essentially a global network of computers that can route messages from one computer to another based on the IP address of the sender and the recipient (a little bit like a virtual version of  the global postal system that routes letters from one postal address to another).

DNS

DNS stands for Domain Name System and is a method by which your computer can lookup a human readable internet address for a computer server on which a website is running, (like “www.google.com”) in a directory or address book and associate it with an IP address. So when you ask your browser to go to a website (for example http://www.google.com) it uses DNS to convert “www.google.com” to the IP address of the computer server on which the web site is running. Once it knows the IP address, your computer can shoot a message into cyberspace with the IP address of  the remote server. All the internet then does is ensure your computer’s message reaches the target computer no matter where in the world it is located and routes the reply back to your computer. Everything happens in less than a second and you are “browsing” the internet! DNS works as a service running on bunch of computers on the internet that can keep a very up to date global address book of all internet connected computers in the world. When your computer wants to translate a human readable web address to an IP address it simply sends a message to a computer running DNS (known as a DNS server) and receives a response in a split second.

Why is DNS important?

Without the DNS system, your computer would not know how to send a message to any website and  would require you to instead remember every website’s IP address. Obviously this is impractical for many reasons. Firstly, each webpage might contain data that is actually residing on multiple different computer servers and you would have to remember the IP address of dozens of websites just to load a single web page. Secondly, in order to optimise data traffic over the internet the companies that run these websites often keep updating and shuffling around the IP addresses all the time rendering your private address book completely out of date very quickly.

Controlling internet access

One very innovative way then to control access to websites from your home network is to start using a DNS service that can filter out the desirable from the undesirable sites on the internet. Thus when any computer on your network wants to connect to a website you consider undesirable, the DNS service would simply refuse to provide the IP address, making it impossible for you to access the website. In my next post I will describe how you can force users on your home network to use a DNS service from a company called OpenDNS that provides the control you require and allows you to be the decider of what is and isn’t desirable.

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Creating a safe internet environment at home – Part 1/3

The Internet has truly changed how we interact with the world around us. A hard bound encyclopedia seems like a concept as antiquated as stone tablets. Email? We all know what that is, but our kids will probably ask us someday what was meant by “Mail”-did you  write letters by hand and actually get news about your friends from something that took a week to move from one city to another??

The world our kids are growing up is very different and for them to thrive, they need to be connected to google, skype, whatsapp, facebook, wikipedia, twitter, flickr, scribd, burrp (!) whatever. We need to allow our kids to access all the good stuff the internet has to offer yet, somehow we also need to protect them from the seamy side of the internet – porn, malware, phishing sites, etc.

This is more difficult than one would think.

For one, technology evolves very quickly and for various reasons, we are generationally challenged in keeping up with changes as compared to our children. In other words, as far as internet technology is concerned, they tend to be smarter than us and the gap, unfortunately keeps getting wider as the years go by.

Secondly every parent has a different view on what type of protection their kids need. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and that makes it necessary for parents to more than just install a piece of software and forget about it.

Third, the open and unstructured nature of the internet implies that a perfect solution is just about impossible to implement. There is no automated solution that can filter out everything a parent might consider objectionable and yet leave the internet usable. Technology just hasn’t evolved to that level and may never do so. One can get close, but can never achieve complete protection. Just like in the real world-you can make it difficult for your children to be exposed to bad stuff but you cannot completely prevent it without locking  them up, which of course, is undesirable.

So what does a busy parent do who wants to ensure his family can make the best of the internet, yet stay safe? I have been confronted with this problem as I see my kids growing up. I have looked hard on the internet but have not found any completely satisfactory solution that a non technical parent could easily adopt. There are good solutions and bad ones and it takes a lot of effort sorting through the jargon and technology to understand what works.

In my subsequent post I will try to share how I have tried to address this problem. My aim is to present the solution in a manner that is easily understandable to most parents.

I hope this will be helpful to harried parents who want a safer internet environment in their homes.