This week the Commission voted to publish for comment a seriously flawed proposal to create a public database of consumer complaints. My colleague, Commissioner Northup, and I tried to make the database a more useful tool for consumers, but ran into partisan 3-2 votes. This means this proposal seriously falls short of serving the interests of the public–both consumers and product sellers. Too bad for the public that the majority did not agree to inject some practical, common sense requirements into the rule.
- The proposed database will allow virtually any information from anyone–not necessarily someone who used the product or was hurt, but even people who have only secondhand or thirdhand knowledge of an event. This includes information from advocacy groups, lawyers and competitors who may have their own reasons to “salt” the database.
- The requirements for a report to be posted are so minimal that people who read about an incident in the newspaper can submit a report for posting.
- We tried to require reports to have basic information such as the approximate date and location of the incident. How can a manufacturer investigate an incident without that? No go with the majority.
- While every effort will be made to prevent the disclosure of personally identifiable information, the majority rejected giving parents the ability to take down information posted by third parties about incidents involving their family. Where is the sense of privacy?
- A product report will be sent to the manufacturer, however it is up to the manufacturer to comment on its accuracy. If the manufacturer comments that the report is materially inaccurate, it is likely staff will post the comments with the report, rather than take the report down. Staff is not required to investigate the report,–only to validate that the correct boxes were checked.
- While it is stated that staff will review the data, it will be very brief. Complaints and comments will not necessarily be investigated. Staff investigations will depend on resources. Answer to our request for a resource estimate? Not yet been done.
- And, in a real stretch, the proposed rule states it will have no impact on small business since those companies probably will not be subject of very many complaints and, besides, it would only take a couple of hours for them to deal with complaints (this is based on unverified, sketchy information). Never mind that one inaccurate report that goes viral on the internet can cause irreparable injury to a small business.
I truly believe we could and should create a useful, searchable data site for consumers to see what others have said about incidents with products that could cause injury. But to make the database helpful for consumers, we need to capture the best facts about an incident. Thanks to this proposal, chances will be hit or miss at best.
Help change those chances by commenting on this document. Speak up in this debate, and help us get a unanimous vote for the consumer and give you a database you want to have and that you can really use.