Consumer complaint website will test wisdom of crowds

Agency approval of a March 2011 launch of online tool for reports on harmful products promises unprecedented information, risk of defamation.

Consumers who believe they have been harmed by unsafe toys or appliances, for the first time starting in March 2011, will be able to see their complaints screened and displayed on a public website maintained by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But commission members split along partisan lines when they voted 3-2 on Nov. 24 to finalize the rule creating the website, with industry and consumer groups at loggerheads over the tool's benefits and risks.

Authorized by the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the database would give the general public unprecedented access to an active file of pending complaints -- presented with a disclaimer regarding their accuracy -- that previously could be released only with the manufacturer's permission. The only other such tool in the federal government is the site for complaints about unsafe cars at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"The database will enable the CPSC to effectively protect the public through the use of modern technology," commissioners Inez Tenenbaum, Robert Adler and Thomas Moore said in a statement. "While we have always collected safety data from multiple sources, the data often has been siloed and difficult to unify. The database is the public centerpiece of a comprehensive, agencywide undertaking that will result in a single, integrated, Web-based environment, allowing us to merge these systems, thereby significantly expanding the commission's effectiveness."

Dissenting commissioner Nancy Nord warned the absence of strict deadlines for complaint review could mean that unverified criticisms of a product reproduced electronically might end up in wide circulation and unfairly tarnish a manufacturer's reputation. "There is a good chance that this will be a 'post it and forget it' activity with inaccurate information remaining in a government sanctioned database," she wrote. The commission majority's refusal to consider electronic watermarking or other such protections will further mislead consumers, she said.

The National Association of Manufacturers criticized the final rule on similar grounds, warning if complaints aren't thoroughly vetted before posting, trade secrets could be betrayed. Rosario Palmieri, vice president for infrastructure, legal and regulatory policy at NAM, in a blog post also faulted the rule's definition of who is eligible to post on the database. "The new definition includes attorneys, investigators, professional engineers, agents of a user of a consumer product, observers of the consumer products being used, consumer advocates, and consumer advocacy organizations, among others," she said. "As a result, the database will be filled with bogus reports inspired by political or financial motives rather than safety."

Such concerns were dismissed by Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. "There are provisions in the law and rule that ensure that confidential business information is not posted, and it's impossible to think of an example of a consumer who had confidential information," she said. To qualify to post a complaint, a consumer must provide eight critical pieces of information, including the precise product, the manufacturer and the extent of the alleged harm, she added, "so the CPCS will weed out complaints that don't have a basis in fact."

Celia Wexler, a Washington representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement: "The new database strengthens the transparency of the CPSC and will enable scientists and researchers, both inside and outside the agency, to spot trends early and proactively. The ability to respond to problems before product defects harm scores of consumers benefits both the public and businesses."