As part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), Congress mandated that the CPSC create a "publicly available consumer product safety information database" compiling consumer complaints about the safety of products. Last week, by a 3-2 majority, the commission voted to adopt regulations that have dismayed many in the business community by ensuring that the database will needlessly include a wide range of secondhand, false, unfounded or tactical reports. The Washington Times editorializes:
"¦[Under the regulations as adopted last week] anybody who wants to trash a product, for whatever reason, can do so. The commission can leave a complaint on the database indefinitely without investigating its merits "even if a manufacturer has already provided evidence the claim is inaccurate," as noted by Carter Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers' "Shopfloor" blog"¦.
Trial lawyers pushing class-action suits could gin up hundreds of anonymous complaints, then point the jurors to those complaints at the "official" CPSC website as [support for] their theories that a product in question caused vast harm. "The agency does not appear to be concerned about fairness and does not care that unfounded complaints could damage the reputation of a company," said [Commissioner Nancy] Nord.
Commissioners Nord and Anne Northup introduced an alternative proposal (PDF) aimed at making the contents of the database more reliable and accurate but were outvoted by the Democratic commission majority led by Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. Nord: "under the majority's approach, the database will not differentiate between complaints entered by lawyers, competitors, labor unions and advocacy groups who may have their own reasons to "˜salt' the database, from those of actual consumers with firsthand experience with a product."
Any number of private actors have already tackled this problem. Amazon.com has probably the most comprehensive set of product reviews, and has taken a number of steps (e.g. real name reviews) to increase trust in their system. Reviewers who are shills (either for or against a product) are quickly outed by other reviewers. Another site whose reviews I rely on a lot is TripAdvisor, which has hotel and other travel reviews. TripAdvisor allows the reviewed hotels to respond to individual reviews in a way that the consumer can see to get both sides of the story.
Apparently, none of this back and forth will be allowed in the CPSC data base. The Democrats who wrote the process only want bad stuff in the data base, so it will not allow manufacturer responses or even positive reviews to appear. The only possible justification for the government to run this database would be for the government to take a role in investigating and confirming or overturning claims and complaints, but it is clear it won't be doing this either. This will just be a location for disgruntled people to drop turds on various manufacturers, all with the imprimatur of the government. I can't see consumers finding much value here compared to the alternatives, but I can see the value in a courtroom to be able to stuff a government site with unsubstantiated claims and then use that site to say that the "official" government site is full of criticisms of the product.