There are over 2 billion sites on the internet, and for good reason: the browser represents one of the most critical tools for productivity, communication and research alike. At no time in history have there been more internet users – driven partly by skyrocketing rates of WFH employees. For instance, between December 2019 and March 2022, employees who worked from home full-time more than doubled, reaching almost 10 million people in the UK alone. Attackers are crucially aware of this. 

Websites offer a particularly promising way for malware to sneak into the cracks of otherwise secure organizations. This is thanks to the mechanism by which an endpoint makes a request to the website in question.  The web – and DNS, specifically – are involved in the majority of malware attacks. Web filtering technology controls users’ web access, involving the control over which websites users can access, what content users can view, and which files users can download. For example, a system can prevent users’ access to illegal and inappropriate search results.

Why is Web Filtering Important?

Web filtering offers a number of key advantages to any organization looking for a competitive and regulatory edge. Cohesive and far-reaching web filtering is vital to protect users from themselves in the workplace and beyond. 

Malware Protection and Data Security

At the very core of web filtering is the ability to safeguard users’ computers from malware and other malicious content. Phishing is one of the most critical threats to organizational security, as once an employee is caught in a phisher’s snare, the attacker is granted access to swathes of online accounts.

Phishing domains dominate the online landscape; these web pages are built by criminals to look nearly identical to a legitimate counterpart. Whether it’s a page pretending to be an email login or bank confirmation page, phishing attacks are purpose-built to deceive the human eye. This is compounded by the fact that phishing emails and contact messages are often spiked with a sense of extreme urgency. As a result, human recipients fall for finely-honed attacks that pave the way for high-privileged access and malware downloads. 

Web filters are immune to the trickery employed by many phishing attacks, thanks to their ability to cut out the fluff. Advanced web filtering systems employ behavioral analysis techniques to identify suspicious activities on websites – regardless of the high-pressure delivery tactics used by an attacker. They monitor the behavior of websites in real-time, looking for signs of malicious intent or activities commonly associated with malware. If a domain is untrustworthy, endpoint requests can be stopped far before any credentials are stolen or data is made off with. 

Regulatory Compliance

In today’s regulatory landscape, companies are obliged to comply with a multitude of data protection regulations. For instance, the Department for Education issues specific guidance on how students need to be protected. Appropriate filters are a vital part of this; easy-to-implement content filters can make a drastic difference to children’s exposure to inappropriate content online. 

While important across the education and financial landscapes, widespread filtering of web content is becoming increasingly commonplace throughout entire trading blocs. The European Commission’s recent bill focusing on protecting young end-users promises to have widespread ramifications across entire markets. This content-filtering process demands that online hosting services, interpersonal communication providers, and software application services all start to create content filters that far exceed isolated, organizational filters. The new regulation demands that a central agency provides a database of online abuse, which is then used to filter web content accordingly. 

While universal content filtering is a distant speck on the horizon, regulatory compliance already demands that web filters prevent any theft or unintentional exposure of your organization’s data. Breaching these leads to heavy fines and a drastic dip in customer trust.

Policy Enforcement

While regulatory compliance helps enforce data safety from the top, the process of remaining compliant demands regulations to be broken down into bite-sized, company-specific policies. Web filtering solutions then sit between specific endpoints and the sites they’re requesting to visit. This helps maintain a productive and secure web environment aligned with the company’s policies.

How Web Filtering Works?

Web filtering allows IT and security teams to deploy proactive protection across complex ecosystems of devices. Whether at-home or in the office, web filtering offers a way to restrict organizational web access to safe and productive sites. This can be achieved in a number of ways. Knowing what would best fit your organization is one half of the battle; the other is knowing how web filtering works. 

Market forecasts have illustrated that the global web filtering market is expected to cross $9 billion by 2030.

Content categorization

Basic web filtering systems typically start by segmenting the vast plethora of websites into different categories, such as social media, news, gaming, adult content, etc. This categorization is often done via a combination of automated tools, artificial intelligence, and human review. Websites are assigned specific labels or tags based on their content.

Filtering policies

Once the world wide web is nicely categorized into more manageable chunks, administrators can begin to mark out an acceptable perimeter. Filtering policies specify which types of content are allowed or blocked. These policies can be customized according to the needs of the organization or individual. For example, an organization might choose to block access to social media sites during work hours but allow access during lunch breaks.

Content Filtering

Content and keyword filtering involves making decisions about allowing or blocking web traffic based on the content of a webpage. For instance, an organization may implement filters to prevent access to websites containing explicit content. When a request is made, the content of the site is examined, and if it violates the established policy, the site is blocked. This filtering approach empowers organizations to block potentially malicious or inappropriate websites, even if they are not previously known.

Blacklists and whitelists

Web filters maintain lists of websites that are explicitly allowed (whitelists) or blocked (blacklists). Whitelists are used to ensure that only approved websites can be accessed, while blacklists contain sites that are prohibited. These lists can be managed manually by administrators or obtained from third-party providers who specialize in maintaining such databases.

Web filtering systems can vary in complexity and capabilities depending on the specific software or service used. Some solutions provide additional features like reporting and monitoring tools to help administrators track internet usage, identify policy violations, and gain insights into user behavior.

Types of Web Filtering

While web filtering all holds the same end goal – to protect end-users from the threats of malicious or unintentional methods can be divided by the specific approaches they take.

Allow Listing

Allow listing is a method used to specify the websites that are permitted to be accessed by a user, computer, or application. All incoming web traffic is compared against this list, and any requests directed to destinations not included on the list are rejected. This approach provides stringent control over the websites that can be visited.

Block Listing

Block listing functions in the opposite manner of allow listing. Instead of specifying which websites a user can visit, it enumerates sites that should be avoided. With a block list, all incoming traffic is scrutinized, and any requests intended for destinations on the list are blocked. This approach is commonly employed to safeguard against known malicious locations such as phishing sites, drive-by malware downloads, and inappropriate content.

URL filtering

While content categorization offers a solid foundation for keeping end-users safe, this format is noticeably static and bare-bones. URL filtering adds an extra layer onto this by analyzing the URLs that are actively requested by users. These are then compared with a real-time analysis of website content to determine if they should be allowed or blocked. Reputation-based URL filtering is a very common form of protection, which utilizes worldwide data – such as LayerX’s very own threat intel cloud – to establish which domains are likely to be malicious.

Keyword Filtering

In addition to categorization and URL filtering, web filters can also make use of keywords. Scanning web page content, metadata, and HTML tags, allows for the identification of specific keywords or phrases. This lends web filtering options an edge that helps them proactively identify the content that should be blocked. This technique helps catch inappropriate or objectionable content that may not be classified correctly by the categorization process.

Web Filtering With LayerX

While early web filtering provided good enough protection against malicious sites, advancements in safe browsing technology have been remarkably muted in the last few years. While tagging and real-time analysis provide some steps toward user protection, true granular visibility has become even harder to maintain throughout the growing web of solutions and use cases. 

LayerX is the first user-first web filtering solution that identifies malicious behavior from the user’s point of view. It employs real-time analysis and a comprehensive understanding of malicious activity to examine every user action. The easy-install browser extension provides Threat-Intel-deep analysis, and local enforcer elements neutralizes risky code with no impact on the user experience. 

By combining these proactive measures, LayerX effectively provides a secure browsing experience from anywhere users access the web.