A High Court judge has awarded businessman Matthew Firsht £22,000 in damages for defamation and misuse of private information after a fake profile was created for him on social networking website Facebook.
The Court found that the defendant, Grant Raphael, had, in June 2007, pretended to be Mr Firsht and set up a Facebook profile containing false information about his political and religious views, his sexual orientation and relationship status, as well as a Group entitled 'Has Matthew Firsht lied to you?'
Cameraman Raphael, and Mr Firsht had been school friends and later colleagues at audience-providing television company Power House. Following a disagreement over staffing, and having discussed the issue with Mr Raphael who seemed sympathetic to his friend's situation, Mr Firsht resigned from the company in 2000. Mr Firsht went on to set up his own very successful company 'Applause Store', which provides audiences for television programmes such as Top Gear and Big Brother.
Details provided by Facebook Inc showed that the profile in question had been created on a computer with the same Internet protocol (IP) address as Mr Raphael's and that shortly beforehand Mr Raphael had accessed his own profile page. Facebook Inc was also able to give details indicating at what time and for how long each user had been logged on and what they had done on the site.
Mr Raphael had claimed that the profile had been created by a group of 'acquaintances' during an impromptu party at his house, but Richard Parkes QC judged the defence to be "built on lies" and "utterly implausible from start to finish". He said that it was "utterly far-fetched" that a stranger would have been able to use Mr Raphael's computer for over an hour without being noticed and include insulting details about Mr Firsht that very few people could have known.
Being a very private person, Mr Firsht was shocked and upset by false details of his personal life being "laid bare for all to see" and was also distressed about the damage that could be done to his reputation as a successful businessman should the claims about his company be believed. The nature of the libel was particularly serious because the claims made by Mr Raphael were not so far-fetched as to be totally unbelievable and could thus presumably be taken seriously by people who viewed the fake profile and group. The judge awarded Mr Firsht £2,000 for the breach of privacy and a further £15,000 for defamation, which took into account the fact that he had been forced to endure an expensive and time-consuming court process to vindicate himself. Furthermore, 'Applause Store' was awarded £5,000 for defamation through association to Mr Firsht and because of the group that Mr Raphael created saying the company owed people money and represented a credit risk to investors.
The award of damages was substantially increased by the judge's finding that Mr Raphael had acted unconscionably both before and after the claim against him was made, building a case on what was found to be "no more than a lie". Mr Firsht said he would have accepted an apology if Mr Raphael had offered one at an early stage, thus avoiding the distress and expense of litigation.
This is the first time a case about a hurtful profile on social networking site Facebook has come to trial, probably because most potential claimants are pacified by the removal of the offending material from the internet or do not have the funds to pursue the matter, but in this case for both commercial and personal reasons, the claimant understandably felt a need to identify the perpetrator and clear his name.