Beginning in March, consumers will for the first time be able to check a government database that will compile safety complaints about a wide array of products such as toys and electrical appliances.
The public database, approved Wednesday by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is almost unprecedented for a government agency.
Companies will be given a brief period to block complaints that are untrue or involve confidential information, but the database appears likely to become the massive equivalent of the Internet bulletin boards on which consumers can post personal safety reviews of products.
That's a marked change from the previous system in which consumers could file complaints with the commission, but the alleged problem would not be disclosed officially unless the agency ordered a recall.
The 3-2 vote by commissioners to change the system came on party lines, with Democratic members voting to establish the database at SaferProducts.gov, an existing commission website.
The database will allow the commission to "share more information about dangerous products than we have been allowed to in years past -- a change that we believe will lead to safer products and, therefore, safer consumers," Democratic commissioners Thomas Moore, Robert Adler and Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum said in a joint statement.
The commission's two Republican members, Anne Northup and Nancy Nord, and other critics said the system was open to abuse, including negative posts by competitors.
They charged that the decision expanded the categories of people who can lodge a complaint beyond what Congress had intended in a 2008 law authorizing the public complaint database.
"As a result, the database with be filled with bogus reports inspired by political or financial motives rather than safety," Rosario Palmieri of the National Assn. of Manufacturers said in a blog post.
But from a consumer perspective, "I can only see benefits," said Prashant Malaviya, a marketing professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. "Any little effort to increase the awareness of consumers about defective products is going to help."
About two-thirds of the U.S. population has Internet access, and online research for product purchases has become commonplace, making the new database a potentially powerful tool for consumers and a loud megaphone for important announcements such as recalls, Malaviya said.
Starting March 11, consumers can contact the commission either via an online complaint form, or a telephone hotline with complaints about products within its purview -- basically everything except cars, tires, food, tobacco, drugs and cosmetics.
Companies that register with the commission will be given access to a Web portal in which they can view complaints against their products and have 10 days to object if the information is false or involves confidential business information.
The decision about whether to honor the objection rests with the commission.
A similar website for cars is operated by the Transportation Department at Safercar.gov.
The commission's database will not include complaints currently on file.
In the case of older complaints, there would be no way to ensure fair comment by product makers, commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said. Besides, the agency lacks the manpower to convert the information into a consumer usable format, he said.
In what could yet develop into an obstacle for the information bank, a Republican House member who is in line to become the chairman of the committee that spawned the database legislation said Tuesday that the rules for the new database were tilted against business.
"Several provisions of the staff-proposed final rule run contrary to the intent of Congress and the clear and unambiguous language of the act," Rep. Joe L. Barton (R- Texas) said in a letter to Tenenbaum.
With the House soon to be in Republican hands, Barton is a contender to head the Energy and Commerce Committee.