Somewhat late to the party, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is preparing to launch a Web site consisting of complaints filed with the commission by consumers. The new site, www.saferproducts.gov, is scheduled to launch March 11.

Critics have noted that sites like ConsumerAffairs.com and Ripoffreport.com have been doing that very thing for more than a decade, and that online reviews of products and services are now so commonplace as to be almost ubiquitous.

Nevertheless, it literally took an act of Congress to get the agency to at long last take the wraps off the information it collects and stores at public expense. Congress voted overwhelmingly in August 2008 to beef up the CPSC, giving it a bigger budget and more authority to take action against unsafe products.

President Bush signed the measure just a few days later, quelling consumer advocates' fears that he would capitulate to industry objections.

But that doesn't mean that industry groups aren't keeping up their campaign against the public release of consumer complaints.

"We're not opposed to a database," Rosario Palmieri, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), told The Washington Post. "We're opposed to a database that's full of inaccurate information."

In a statement on its Web site, the organization says: "The NAM is leading the fight to improve the law’s implementation and move forward with reasonable improvements to the law."

But consumer advocates say making public information public is only logical.

"This is all about transparency," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with Consumers Union. "Commission staffers have worked very hard to ensure that the database is fair to everyone."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has operated a similar site – www.safercar.gov – for years. Information submitted by the public has frequently led to investigations and recalls, including the massive Toyota recall to fix alleged unintended acceleration problems.

Preview scheduled

The agency will provide a preview of the new database tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 11) at 10:30 am, Eastern time. The conference will demonstrate the process for filing a complaint and using the site's search function.

The CPSC will have a second preview for industry representatives on Jan. 20. Besides getting a look at the consumer complaint site, manufacturers and importers will be able to sign up for accounts on the site's business portal.

Currently, consumers and others who want to view safety complaints about products must file a public-records request with the CPSC, which then is required to seek permission from the manufacturer or importer before releasing the information. The company can protest the release and sue to stop it.

Even when the CPSC decides that a product is dangerous enough to be recalled, it must negotiate the terms of the recall with the manufacturer, a tedious process that can take years, all while shoppers continue to buy the dangerous items.

Under the new system, consumer complaints will be published 15 days after they are received. Companies that have registered to receive complaints will have 10 days to submit a response, which will be published alongside the complaint.

However, if companies claim a complaint is false or discloses confidential business information, the agency may decide to withhold it.

Consumers who file complaints must provide their identity but the information will not be published and will be available to manufacturers only if the consumer agrees.

The agency will publish only complaints concerning safety – not complaints about reliability, price or quality.