PHISHING PROTECTION Phishing is the Internet scheme where you get a fake e-mail note from your bank about a problem with your account. When you click the link to correct the problem, you get a fake Web site, designed to look just like your bank’s — and by logging in, you unwittingly supply your name and password to the bad guys.
OpenDNS intercepts and blocks your efforts to visit the fake sites. It works like a charm.
SHORTCUTS Web address shortcuts are short, memorable abbreviations for your favorite sites. You can set up “nyt” so that, when you type it into your address bar, you go to a much longer Web address like http://www.nytimes.com/pages/todayspaper/index.html.
Shortcuts are great. There’s limited space on your bookmarks toolbar, and the bookmarks menu is clumsy for people who like to keep their hands on the keyboard. And unlike the similar feature in Firefox, OpenDNS’s shortcuts work in any browser on any computer or phone in the house.
PARENTAL CONTROLS The latest OpenDNS feature is site-blocking. Here again, having an account means that you can create a setting that applies to every computer in the house — and block your choice of 57 categories of Web sites, including Pornography, Nudity, Lingerie, Instant Messaging, File Sharing, Game and Humor. (Honestly. What kind of parent would block humor?)
How can OpenDNS possibly track every Web site on earth and put it into the right 57 categories? It doesn’t. Its fans do. Anyone can submit a site to the master database of categorized sites, whereupon other people vote on its placement. This Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing is ingenious, and, as far as my testing was concerned, bulletproof.
(Teenagers often subscribe to mailing lists that publish the addresses of proxies and anonymizers, special sites that they use to get around traditional Web blockers installed by schools or parents. But I was amused to learn that the engineers at OpenDNS subscribe to those lists, too. They block the proxies as fast as they are created.)
All of this OpenDNS goodness is free, automatic and always improving. Surely there’s a catch. How, for example, does OpenDNS make money?
First, although everything described here is free, the company sells additional services to businesses.
Second, if you type the address of a nonexistent site, OpenDNS throws up the equivalent of Google’s “Did you mean?” screen: a list of sites, provided for (and paid for) by Yahoo , that behave as though you’ve done a search for that term. Presto: more income.
About the only worry anyone seems to have about OpenDNS is about privacy. Already, 20 million people use OpenDNS, according to the company — 1 percent of everyone on the Internet. Even if OpenDNS doesn’t know your name or anything about you, couldn’t it be collecting all kinds of Web traffic data, concocting its evil plans?
Of course, whoever is providing your D.N.S. lookups now (not to mention your bank, phone company and grocery store) could be doing exactly the same thing right now. At a certain point, you have to let go.
The biggest realistic challenge may be setting up OpenDNS in the first place. It involves typing two addresses into the D.N.S. settings page of your computer or router: 22.214.171.124 and 126.96.36.199. That new address directs your computers’ Web requests to OpenDNS’s lookup service.
At OpenDNS.com, the step-by-step instructions take all of two minutes to complete. But fooling around with these network underpinnings may strike some people as intimidating.
You can, if you like, turn on OpenDNS on each computer and phone in your building individually. But it’s much smarter and quicker to make the change on the router itself, the little box that distributes your Internet connection throughout your home. At OpenDNS.com, you’ll find illustrated instructions for each router brand.
In any case, OpenDNS is one of the last great freebies of the Web. It manages to pull off the Google trick: offering, at no charge, incredible utility and speed to the masses — while still finding inoffensive ways to make money. Even if you use only one or two of its features, you’ll find that OpenDNS makes your Web life better.
Come to think of it, you can thank me after all.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.