Consumer safety agency plans crowdsourced database

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Over the objections of manufacturers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) will launch a searchable, online database in March that collects consumer complaints about harmful or dangerous products.

The new crowdsourcing tool at www.SaferProducts.gov will require consumers to describe the harm caused by a product, to identify the manufacturer, and to attest that their complaint is accurate. Currently, most consumer complaints about a safety issue remain confidential unless the CPSC decides that a recall is merited.

“This will really beef up research and data we have on public safety,” says Nancy Cowles of Kids In Danger, a child protection group. The database, which Congress mandated in a 2008 law, will let consumers search for information by product name, type of harm, or manufacturer. It will also make it harder for companies to hide complaints about faulty products, Cowles said.

Within 5 days of receiving a consumer complaint, the CPSC must share the report with the manufacturer of the product, according to the law mandating the new database. The company has 10 days to try to block publication of the complaint in the database by persuading the agency that the information is wrong or requires protection as a trade secret, or it can submit a comment to attach to the complaint in the database.

What kind of consumer complaints are the agency expecting? Scott Wolfson, CPSC director of public affairs, cites an example of a baby crib in which its drop side fails in the middle of the night, trapping the infant. Whether a close call or an actual tragedy, the baby’s family will be able to immediately alert the CPSC — and other parents — of the problem. “The sooner it’s on the database, the faster we can take action and other consumers who have the same product will be made aware of the situation,” he said.

Industry groups have lodged their own complaints with the CPSC about the new database, saying they fear false accusations about harmful products will hurt company reputations.

“In the age of the Internet and 24-hour news, information can spread in a moment’s time around the world. There is a danger that inaccurate information regarding a consumer product can irreversibly damage the reputation of a company and the sales of its product,” Cary Silverman, a lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, told the agency’s public hearing last November.

For example, a consumer entering an online complaint could inadvertently misspell the name of the manufacturer, Silverman said, or submit false information to pressure a company into settling a product liability lawsuit. And there is also the risk that a competing manufacturer could deliberately make up a false complaint to tarnish a rival’s reputation, he said.

Werner Co., a Pennsylvania-based ladder maker, urged the CPSC to give manufacturers a longer, 60-day deadline to respond to a consumer complaint and to automatically delete from the database all consumer complaints after five years if they do not result in a recall. Michigan engineering consultants, Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, expressed concern that individual complaints could be circulated via popular social networking sites, prompting many others to file false complaints.

Consumer advocacy groups say the database will save lives by encouraging the speedy removal or redesign of unsafe products. The new trove of information will also help the agency spot trends and emerging problems, they say.

The CPSC is now reviewing public comments about its proposal to set up the database, and is expected to issue a final regulation this fall. The final regulations will also determine if the database will include consumer complaints prior to March 2011.

“We want this database to succeed. When we turn this on, we want it to work well for consumers,” Wolfson said.

ABOUT THE DATA:

What: Database of consumer complaints about harmful or dangerous products submitted to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Where: www.SaferProducts.gov

Availability: Beginning March 11, 2011

Usability: Searchable, but not yet clear if database will include consumer complaints submitted prior to its March 11, 2011 launch date.

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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