A lawsuit filed by an anonymous “Company Doe” seeks to block “baseless allegations” on a new website that allows consumers to post information on hazardous products. The website, SaferProducts.gov, represents an effort to “crowdsource” reporting of dangerous and defective products in the marketplace. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) created the site and lunched it about six months ago. The lawsuit brings to light concerns raised by business groups that the website creates the potential for consumers to defame companies by posting false, misleading, or inaccurate information. One side of this dispute involves the right of manufacturers to do business without false disparagement. On the other side is the public’s interest in freely available information on hazardous products.
The CPSC is an independent agency of the federal government with a mandate to protect the public “against unreasonable risks of injuries associated with consumer products.” It regulates over 15,000 different consumer products by investigating claims of faulty, defective, or hazardous products. It can then issue recalls of products already released into the market or ban products yet to be released. In addition to SaferProducts.gov, the agency operates the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) which collects data on injuries caused by dangerous products from emergency rooms. Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in 2008, which authorized the creation of a public database to collect information on product concerns.
In its first four months, according to the Government Accountability Office, the website received 5,464 consumer complaints. Of those, the CPSC found 383 of them to be “materially inaccurate.” In 204 of those reports, consumers had incorrectly identified the manufacturers of the allegedly hazardous products. The total number of reports received, while possibly low because of lack of widespread knowledge of the system yet, may be considerably lower than the number of reports received by the CPSC through its other programs. Annually, it collects over 360,000 reports through NEISS, 23,000 reports directly from manufacturers, and around 15,000 reports through the agency’s website and hotline.
SaferProducts.gov is the first service that gives members of the public the opportunity to directly report problems, and to access information reported by others. The CPSC clearly disclaims that it “does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents” of the website’s database. This potentially presents a problem both for manufacturers who may find themselves unfairly maligned, and for a public needing accurate and up-to-date information on hazardous products.
A database that functions essentially like a collaborative “wiki”-style website with questionably accurate information is not very helpful to anyone. At the same time, a system that allows manufacturers to object to submissions that they do not like, even if they may have some factual basis, potentially deprives the public of needed information. The court that must sort through these issues has a difficult job ahead of it.
SaferProducts.gov, a program of the Consumer Products Safety Commission
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