By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News
Children who use the internet face a slew of dangers, ranging from sex and drugs spam to cyber bullies and paedophiles.
Magic Desktop only allows children to click on safe content
It is a situation that leaves parents ripe for the picking by a string of companies selling parental controls software.
Parents eager to control what their children see online, and who they meet during their excursions into cyberspace, are spoilt for choice.
Yet, although many are ready to pay the price if it makes their children safer, many are finding it hard to know who to trust.
Realising this, the European Union has stepped in to help by ranking the providers in a three-year benchmarking study carried out by Deloitte, a consultancy, and unveiled on Tuesday to mark Safer Internet day.
For parents who have been prepared to trust big names such as AOL or Microsoft, the survey offers depressing reading.
In this year's benchmarking test, they were all beaten to the top spot by a small partnership that employs no more than 50 people, mostly designers and developers in Ukraine.
Indeed, Microsoft only managed to capture the 12th spot while AOL came last in the survey of 30 parental control tools.
Safe and educational
Magic Desktop, which came first in last year's survey as well, is essentially an operating system for children, which lies like a "protective shell" over Microsoft Windows.
Top 10 parental control tools
1 Magic Desktop
2 Live Mark Family
3 eScan Internet Security Suite
4 Norman Security
5 PC-cillin Internet Security
6 OpteNet Web Filter
7 Safe Eyes
10 Norton Internet Security
"There is only one way to guarantee safety for children online," declares Lars Jolstad, co-founder of Easybits Software, which makes the EU-survey's chart-topping Magic Desktop. "And that is to use 'white lists'."
The colourful desktop is filled with icons that take the children to websites, games and educational programmes that have been authorised, or "white listed", by a parent or a child carer, or by organisations that specialise in providing "libraries" of approved sites.
It also allows children to communicate with trusted and approved email senders.
Deloitte, the consultancy that carried out the EU-funded study, describes it as "very well suited for children because it offers a safe and educational environment".
In essence, this is because the program essentially locks the children out from all parts of the computer except for the areas they are allowed to enter, whereas its rivals focus on browser safety only, explains Mr Jolstad.
Deloitte points to an important drawback with Magic Desktop, however. Whereas it gets top scores for its protection of children under 10, it is beaten by all its rivals when it comes to effectively protecting those over 10.
But then, the company is not targeting the adolescent market, points out Mr Jolstad.
Mr Jolstad and his co-founder Ilya Kruglenko - who first met each other in Moscow during the 1990s while selling second-hand Australian telephones to the Russians - initially created Magic Desktop to protect their own children from getting tangled up in an unpleasant web.
Some 130,000 development hours later, Mr Jolstad is ready to acknowledge that "the project has grown much larger than we ever thought it would".
Easybits has landed distribution and licensing deals with a string of internet service providers in Europe, including Tiscali in the UK, T-Online in Germany, Telenor in Norway and Telekom Italia, as well as with Brazilian ISP UHL.
In addition, the program comes pre-installed on all HP computers, and Easybits has just signed a similar deal with a rival computer maker that should see Magic Desktop being pre-installed on 10 million computers by the end of 2008, Mr Jolstad says.
"We feel we've got control over the distribution in Europe," he adds, eagerly gazing across the pond.
Yet, in spite of Mr Jolstad and Mr Kruglenko's experiences trading with Russian sawmills and oil companies during the 1980s, despite having made some money during the 2000 dot.com boom, and even though the company has been profitable during the past two years: they are still finding it hard to penetrate the lucrative North American market.
"We're enjoying great momentum in the market, which we should take advantage of," Mr Jolstad says.
"But we'll have to wait until the money is there before we enter the US."