Marketers, Meet the Feds' Very Own Yelp

BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Many a service business has faced the challenge of dealing with consumer reviews -- the good, the bad and the ugly. Now, a federal agency that's charged with protecting consumer safety will start making product complaints public.

For 38 years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been collecting consumer complaints and keeping them generally out of public view. That's all set to change March 11, when the commission plans to make safety complaints public online -- effectively putting the government into the social-media business and lifting the lid on what are sometimes allegations of serious injury.

The complaint database at will be searchable by brand or manufacturer. Jill Deal, a lawyer with the Venable firm in Washington, calls it "Yelp with the imprimatur of government authority."

Of course, Yelp, Twitter, Facebook and a wide array of anonymous review boards online have made it easy for just about anyone to complain about just about anything. And the CPSC will require something many of those forums don't: verifiable contact information, though that won't be made public in the database or disclosed to the target of the complaint unless the reporter so requires.

But rather than the complaints of surly waiters or cold food that are a mainstay of Yelp, CPSC will publish complaints about injury or risk of injury. And government authority or no, there's not much due process involved before complaints get published.

The CPSC will have five days to notify a manufacturer of a complaint and is in the process of seeking online contact information of every company it covers to expedite that process. The manufacturer then has 10 days to file a response, and its comments can be listed alongside the published complaint if they arrive in time.

The CPSC may refuse to publish complaints it finds are "materially false" or reveal confidential information, but the burden of proof there lies with the manufacturer, which must file a response of no more than five pages in no more than five days to guarantee "expedited consideration" from CPSC staff. The regulations require all complaints be published within 15 days of receipt unless found to be false or in violation of legitimate confidentiality.

Consumer advocacy groups have roundly applauded the database, but Ms. Deal and the National Association of Manufacturers charge it will be open to abuse by competitors, trial lawyers or others with axes to grind against brands. The same is true of court records from lawsuits, but appears far more readily accessible to average consumers and includes complaints that stay in the database forever with no guarantee the CPSC will ever weigh in on the matter.

At least up to now, it's been fairly rare for the CPSC to report when it finds consumer complaints baseless or unverifiable. One exception came last year following well-publicized complaints by parents that Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pampers Dry Max diapers were causing diaper rashes or "chemical burns," allegations the CPSC reported it couldn't substantiate four months after a concerted effort by parents on a Facebook page to encourage complaints to the commission. But there's no requirement report results of CPSC investigations alongside published complaints.

The site is set to begin a "soft launch" collecting consumer complaints today, but only to test the process the CPSC will use to process complaints before they're put online. Complaints during this test phase won't be made public, but those that come in after the official launch March 11 will be, said Ming Zhu, project manager for, during a Jan. 20 webinar for businesses.

One question is how readily a government agency with around 500 employees in a wide range of areas can handle the added workload of managing the database. CPSC currently gets around 16,000 complaints annually via its telephone hotline, current online reporting form or mail -- not counting the injury reports it monitors other ways, such as analyzing hospital admission reports and death certificates.

While there's no guarantee a new site and searchable database will increase the volume of complaints, it does give consumer activists a new venue for collecting and airing grievances solicited in social media.

The CPSC reported 53.6 million visits to its websites last year, though counted only 400,000 to 700,000 monthly unique visitors to over the past 12 months.

CPSC regulates consumer products that aren't handled by other agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, though Ms. Deal said some food, drug and cosmetic products may come under partial coverage from the database, because the CPSC monitors injuries from product packaging.