FEATURE ARTICLE: The data they don’t want you to see
Despite opposition from manufacturers and some members of Congress, a new database could provide crucial safety information to consumers.
For a database that some say will destroy what’s left of U.S. manufacturing, SaferProducts.gov looks pretty benign.
The database, which was launched March 11, includes recall notices and reports from people who’ve had bad experiences with products: light bulbs that exploded, dishwashers that caught fire, diapers that appeared to cause rashes, a crib that trapped a baby’s leg.
Manufacturers can respond to the reports before they’re posted on the site, and some do:
- Bosch, for example, noted that the fiery dishwasher had already been the subject of a recall.
- Dynacraft, a bike manufacturer, said “a long history of no maintenance” on a 10-year-old bicycle is probably what caused a part to fall off, resulting in a report of a cut to the rider that required seven stitches to close.
- Pampers thanked the parents who reported rashes for “taking time out of your busy day to contact” the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which runs the database. The diaper-maker provided links to a report by the commission and its Canadian counterpart, Health Canada, announcing that they did not find a link between Pampers’ Dry Max design and diaper rash.
Some people’s reports don’t ever see the light of day. If people complain about a quality issue, rather than something that did or could cause harm, the report won’t make it into the database, safety commission spokesman Alex Filip said. Neither will reports that target the wrong manufacturer, that don’t list a manufacturer or that are otherwise “materially inaccurate.”
All in all, the database so far looks pretty restrained, especially when compared with the free-for-all commenting and reviews you can find on many other sites, from Amazon.com to Yelp.
At least with SaferProducts.gov, manufacturers will be notified of complaints within five days of the reports and have 10 days to respond. Businesses don’t get any prior notice of complaints or reviews on other sites, and any response they make can get lost in the din of comments.
But this Internet thingy — where people actually have a right to express themselves and have their comments seen by others — still seems to scare a lot of lawmakers.
U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., led a drive to eliminate funding for the database. During a House floor debate on his amendment to scrap SaferProducts.gov, Pompeo said the Web tool would drive jobs overseas — although it’s not clear how, since consumers are just as free to complain about foreign manufacturers as domestic.
Nevertheless, the amendment passed the House in February with the approval of 224 Republicans and seven Democrats. It’s unlikely to prevail in the Democrat-controlled Senate, however, so at least for now the database will continue.
The database is making public the same kind of information that the safety commission has always collected but that has long been kept from consumers’ sight. Before now, the only way to see commission reports of defective products was to file a public-records request, which manufacturers could sue to stop. Recalls have to be negotiated with manufacturers, which takes awhile, so you could easily wind up buying a product that the commission and the manufacturer know is dangerous.
So now, at least, you can see the reports and make up your own mind.
Safety commission underfunded
One of the weirder arguments being made against the database is that the “.gov” suffix — and the fact that the database is run by a government entity — will give people the idea that all the reports being made are true and complete, despite the clear disclaimers that litter the site.
Some critics have said the commission should investigate, and validate or dismiss, every report before it’s posted. But that requires staff, which requires money, which lawmakers haven’t been willing to cough up.
Will the database become a repository for people who lie about products, businesses that try to undermine competitors and those with axes to grind? Maybe. But in the absence of adequate safety enforcement, it may also become the best way to get a heads up on products that could hurt us or our children.
Liz Weston, MSN Money
MONEY SAVING TIP: The art of couponing
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