Too Much Transparency?

Less than two weeks before the scheduled launch of the federal government's first website devoted to consumer complaints about unsafe products, the budget stalemate is threatening to strangle the newborn in its online crib.

An amendment to the House-passed fiscal 2011 continuing resolution sponsored by freshman Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., would defund the website that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been readying for more than a year.

The agency's plan is to screen and publish pending product complaints filed by consumers while also testing the effectiveness of crowd-sourcing websites. Currently, product complaints remain private unless the manufacturer in question allows for their release.

While the Senate prepares its own version of the spending resolution, debate over the website has pitted manufacturers against consumer advocacy groups. "Without the important safety information in the new database, consumers will be left in the dark about injuries that consumer products have caused other consumers," said Liz Hitchcock, U.S. PIRG Public Health Advocate.

But many business groups contend the website will expose the public to inaccurate information and place an unreasonable burden on manufacturers. "The database could be filled with bogus reports inspired by motives other than safety," Rosario Palmieri, vice president of National Association of Manufacturers, wrote in a letter supporting Pompeo's amendment.

Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel at the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen, said manufacturers are afraid of "the sunshine" the new website would place on them. "If they are producing safe products, they have nothing to fear from the database," Hines said, emphasizing that there are "safeguards in place to protect industry" from disingenuous claims.

Authorized in the 2009 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, passed its final rulemaking hurdleon Nov. 24, 2010, when CPSC members voted 3-2 in favor of the website.

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