Windows Family Safety (WFS) is a new offering from Microsoft that aims to offer protection from questionable or indecent websites to families or individuals. I tried it out for a couple of weeks, and found it to work fairly well, except for a few hiccups here and there.
It is a software-based internet filtering mechanism. The difference between a software-based internet filter and a hardware-based one is that the software needs to be installed on every computer where filtering is desired. A hardware-based internet filter is usually self-contained in a box or appliance that gets placed between the user’s internet connection and the internet. The benefit of such an appliance is readily seen. There’s nothing to install on client computers. Unfortunately, hardware-based solutions have been fairly expensive, historically speaking.
Software-based internet filtering has also cost money, until now. As a matter of fact, Microsoft used to offer one such software-based solution with its premium MSN service. Windows Family Safety may be that same offering, repackaged as a free service.
Having used other software-based internet filters, I can tell you Windows Family Safety is a lot easier to use, and much less annoying than paid products. Those other services, who don’t even deserve to be called by their names, were just plain awful. I had to authenticate every time I tried to access a website, and logins didn’t even take at times. What’s worse, if a single website called out to other websites to display information, as is so common these days, I had to authenticate for every single request. They were a nightmare, and I quickly uninstalled them.
Windows Family Safety requires a simple install, and the selection of a master account which can set the level of access for that computer. It uses Microsoft Passport sign-ons, which means I was able to use my Hotmail account to log in. After that, it was a matter of logging in every time I turned on my computer or came back from standby. This was one area where I encountered a hiccup though. The software had an option to allow me to save my username and password, so I wouldn’t have to enter them so often, but that option didn’t seem to work. I was stuck logging in much more than I cared to do, but still, this was nothing compared to the torture I went through with other software-based filters — as already mentioned in the paragraph above.
Just how does WFS work? It turns out that it uses a proxy to filter the traffic. It means that every time you make a call to a website, that call first goes through the WFS servers, where it gets matched to their content database and the website deemed to be appropriate for the level of safety that you’ve chosen. Here’s where I encountered two hiccups.
The first was that at peak times, the speed of my internet connection was slowed down to a crawl until it could pass through the fairly busy proxy servers and be filtered. That was really annoying, but I assume that’s going to get better as MS dedicates more proxy servers to the service. Perhaps it might be better to download content filters directly to each computer and filter the traffic locally, so the chance of a bottleneck is reduced or eliminated.
The second was the seemingly arbitrary designation of some sites as inappropriate. I chose to filter out adult, gambling and violent websites. Somehow, both of my blogs (ComeAcross and Dignoscentia) didn’t meet that standard, which was very surprising to me. Neither of those sites can even remotely be classified under those questionable categories. Fortunately, there’s a fairly simple process for requesting that a site be reconsidered for proper classification, and it’s built into the Windows Family Safety website. I followed the procedure, and within days, my sites were properly classified. But the fact that I had to go through all of that makes me wonder how they’re classified in the first place.
Overall, I found that WFS still hasn’t gotten proper branding. What I mean by that is that it’s not clearly identified as a product by Microsoft. The Windows Live OneCare Family Safety website is part of the Live Family of sites, true, but it’s not even identified on most of the other sites in that family (Hotmail, SkyDrive, etc.) I also found that configuring one’s WFS account can be pretty unintuitive, as the navigation on the WFS site is cumbersome and lacking focus (much like the Windows Live OneCare site, come to think of it.) I even got code errors when I tried to surf through it recently, which is not what I expected from a public MS site.
On a general note, Microsoft really needs to do some work in associating each MS product with the Windows Live account that uses it, and making it easy for each user to access the online/offline settings for each product. Google does a great job with this, and MS could stand to learn from them here.
Windows Family Safety is a good solution, and it works well considering that it’s free. If you’re looking to set up some easy internet filtering at your home, it could turn out to work great for you. Give it a try and see!