For the first time, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that it will post product complaints online, with a new, searchable database set to launch March 11.

The database is a result of the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. While the CPSC already collects reports of defective products, much of the information remained private under an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act. Previously, in order to obtain these reports, consumers had to file a public records request with the CPSC, which then had to consult with the manufacturer before releasing the information.

Under the new system, the CPSC has five days to notify a manufacturer when a consumer files a complaint. The company then has 10 days to respond. It can challenge the complaint as false, argue that the publication will give away a trade secret, or submit a response, which will be published with the complaint in the database.

Complaints are scheduled to post to the system within 15 days of receipt by the CPSC. The agency oversees roughly 15,000 types of consumer goods, excluding tobacco, automobiles, tires, medical devices, food and drugs. While the new database has received praise from consumer advocates, companies have expressed concern that the complaints could contain inaccurate information or fake problems posted by competitors. “We’re not opposed to a database,” Rosario Palmieri, Vice President of the National Association of Manufacturers, told The Washington Post. “We’re opposed to a database that’s full of inaccurate information.”

The database includes a disclaimer that the CPSC cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the complaints, but it will carry the imprimatur of the federal government, Palmieri said. “When the CPSC as a government organization publishes this information . . . it gives it weight and credibility.” Further, with the volume of complaints – 16,000 consumer complaints were made in 2009 – opponents argue that the CPSC will not be able to investigate most of them. CPSC officials argue that safeguards are in place to protect companies, including a requirement to provide verifiable contact information in the complaint (although that information will not be made public in the database or disclosed to the subject of the complaint).

To visit the CPSC’s new database, click here.

Why it matters: The CPSC is encouraging companies to provide online contact information to expedite the notification process when a complaint is filed and to regularly review and dispute any reports that appear to be based on false information. Given the short amount of time for companies to respond, manufacturers should establish a policy and procedures for handling complaints.