Web Filtering in iOS 7

Now that iOS 7 is out, we can talk about some features. One I'm particularly interested in is the automatic web filtering in iOS 7. This feature is a big deal for schools.

What is Web Filtering?

The web filtering in iOS 7 is a feature of the low-level networking system in iOS 7 (known as NSURLConnection). It filters all web traffic that comes through that channel. This means that all web views built into apps, as well as third-party browsers such as Chrome, iCab and Dolphin, get filtered.

How Do You Turn It On?

There are two ways to activate web filtering. The manual method is to navigate to Settings > Restrictions > Allowed Content > Websites.

The automatic method is to build a Configuration Profile that enables the web filter and deliver that to devices via Apple Configurator or through an MDM server. If you want to manage filtering this way, I believe your devices have to be supervised.

How Do you Configure the Filtering?

There are a number of aspects to the iOS 7 web filtering, each of which you can control.

Firstly, there is an automatic filter that tries to analyse the web page for adult content and block it. I do not know which criteria or used or whether these criteria are built into iOS or remotely loaded from Apple servers.

Further, there are both whitelists and blacklists that work alongside the auto-filter. If you have sites that should be allowed which get auto-filtered, you can whitelist them. Similarly if you have sites you want blacklisted, you can do that too.

There is another mode of operation for the web filter: a walled-garden where only certain sites are allowed and everything else is blacklisted. This is great in a very specialised set of circumstances: for example, a corporate or promotional iPad that's only provided for accessing the company's website or intranet. I don't think it's really a mode that schools should be thinking about using, except in very early years.

What is the Impact for Schools?

This feature impacts schools at a number of levels. While I don't think it will allow schools to ditch the filtering on the school network, I think it will allow some relaxation of policy.

For schools that have disabled Safari in favour of some janky third-party filtered browser, it's now feasible to allow Safari again. Similarly, schools which have implemented policies banning apps with embedded web views, that policy too can be relaxed since the filtering applies there too.

Another big benefit for schools with iPad take-home programmes is that the devices are now filtered on any network. This is important as it allows the school to provide some protection at home, at friends' houses, on public wifi hotspots and on 3G tethering networks.

It's early days for this feature but my initial approach will be to push a Configuration Profile to iOS 7 devices over MDM. This should allow us to update the whitelist and blacklist remotely.

I think this feature will be very welcome to many schools deploying 1:1 iPad programmes.