During last week’s debate over the public database, my colleagues claimed the need to do an end run around a provision in the Consumer Product Safety Act known as section 6(b). The majority’s official statement specifically asserts that the database “is a dramatic and positive change from the current system (commonly known as ‘section 6(b) procedure’), where the Commission is required to consult with manufacturers before warning the public about critical product safety hazards, and seek their approval before releasing the name of the potentially dangerous item.” The majority suggests that information cannot be released without approval of the manufacturer, but this is materially inaccurate. Whether the majority lacks understanding how the law reads or intentionally seeks to confuse the issue, the result is the same: the public is misled.
Section 6 (b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act states that before we release information that identifies a product or manufacturer, the agency must take reasonable steps to assure the accuracy of the information, including giving the manufacturer 15 days notice of a proposed release of information. If we decide to release the information over the objection of the manufacturer, we must notify the manufacturer of our decision five days before our release. In theory, the manufacturer then can go to court to block it. In the last twenty years at the commission, we have released much information on countless occasions and I am aware of only two attempts to block release; neither succeeded. Additionally, if we determine that public safety warrants, we may release the information immediately without providing 15 day notice.
The majority’s misstatements have now been picked up in the media where I have read several stories that make the inaccurate assertion that information will not be released without manufacturer approval. For example, in a Bloomberg story last week, an incorrect statement, attributed to a fellow Commissioner, said “The agency has been required to get company permission to make such information public. . .”. Though the publication may not be well-versed in our intricate laws, my fellow Commissioner should be.
Press reports misstating the law tend to be repeated as absolute fact. Of course this example of turning fiction into fact is the same concern that has been expressed about the database itself. Once information is published on a federally-sanctioned web site, it becomes “true” regardless of the actual facts. The majority knows this. Accidental or intentional, a misstatement is a misstatement nevertheless. And nevertheless, it is now repeated as fact. A bit more fact checking would do all of us good; most of all, the consumer.