It's no surprise that millions of children around the world use a variety of online services, but no company has ever dared diving into the 13-and-under market. That is, no company but Google.
Google vice president of engineering Pavni Diwanji tells USA Today that she will be heading a new team at Mountain View that will develop kid-friendly versions for some of its most popular products, including search, Chrome and YouTube, which many children are already using.
The Google executive did not provide a definite timeline of when we can expect the new Google made exclusively for kids, but she says her team will start developing the new products starting next year.
The move is likely to ruffle a few feathers, especially with privacy advocates who are concerned that Google could potentially gather information about children users without their parents' consent.
However, Diwanji, who herself is a mother to two girls aged 13 and 8, says there is a need for a kid-centric Google because children already use its services.
"We expect this to be controversial, but the simple truth is kids already have the technology in schools and at home," she says. "So the better approach is to simply see to it that the tech is used in a better way."
Diwanji did not provide details about what the kid-centered Google could include, but the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires that companies who collect information about children under 13 years old must obtain the explicit permission of their parents in the form of a written consent form or by calling the company.
The stringent regulations are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has so far imposed fines on 20 companies in its 15 years of existence for acquiring data about children without their parent's knowledge and consent. The latest company to be levied such a fine was Yelp, which was ordered to pay $450,000 for COPPA violations.
Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the FTC's privacy and identity protection division, says the agency is not out to "play gotcha" to restrict the use of technology as long as children use it with the guidance of their parents.
"We aren't looking to play gotcha. It's just about kids being protected and promoting business compliance," Mithal says. "One of the great things about technology is that we should be able to create safe places for kids. We don't want to stifle that as long as parents are in the driver's seat."
Still, watchdog groups are skeptical of Google's intentions and point out that parents may not always be around to watch their kids, saying the FTC should step up its game in regulating Google's actions as it steps into the children's market.
"I don't think we want a world where our kids are sold things they don't need," says Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Diwanji's announcement comes amid other kid-friendly efforts by Google, such as Maker Camp, Doodle 4 Google and Made with Code.
At its Mountain View headquarters, Diwanji says there is a small studio for employees' children who can come and tinker with the prototype projects Google engineers are working on. Seeing those kids play with Google's early projects, Diwanji says, drives home the point that children see the world, and thus the Internet, differently from the way adults do.
Her daughter, for instance, asked her to tell the folks at Google about Thomas the Tank Engine after she found out from searching for "train" that the only train Google knew is the Amtrak.