Businessman Mathew Firsht has successfully sued an ex-school friend, Grant Raphael, both for libel and misuse of private information, after Mr Raphael created a false profile of Firsht on the hugely popular social networking website Facebook. Applause Store Productions, Firsht’s company, also received damages in defamation. This case highlights how easy it is to create potentially libellous false pages about people on free-of-charge social networking sites, and could open the doors for further similar cases. It will no doubt be welcomed by companies defamed on social networking sites, blogs and review sites as it confirms their ability to recover damages as a result of such defamatory postings.
Mathew Firsht discovered a false profile of himself on social networking site Facebook on 4 July 2007. This contained private information, purporting to include Mr Firsht’s sexual orientation and preferences and his political and religious views. It also contained a link to a Facebook group entitled
“Has Mathew Firsht lied to you?”
The bulk of the defamatory material was on the group page, which alleged that Mr Firsht owed the creator
“a lot of money”
about when he would pay.
The webpages had already been live for two weeks at that point, but Facebook took down the offending material two days later at Mr Firsht’s request. It was discovered that the profile was created on a computer with the IP address of Grant Raphael, the defendant.
Mr Firsht and the defendant had become good friends while at school together in Brighton, but eventually fell out through a business dispute. They both work in television; Mr Firsht set up his own company, Applause Store Productions, which became the leading supplier of audiences for television shows, while the defendant is a freelance cameraman. Deputy Judge Richard Parkes QC stated that “Mr Firsht was prospering and highly successful, and Mr Raphael was not” at the time of the creation of the false profile.
The judge rejected the defendant’s claim that strangers at an impromptu party at his house must have created the profiles without his knowledge, as “utterly implausible” and “far-fetched”. He found the defendant “glib and loquacious” and always prepared to talk his way out of trouble, coming to the conclusion the defence was “built on lies”.
The judge awarded Mr Firsht damages of £15,000 for the libel, which included an amount for aggravated damages. While he found the libel not to be at the top end of the scale, he said it was “serious enough” to say that a successful businessman owed substantial sums of money that he had repeatedly avoided paying by lying, so that he was not to be trusted in the financial conduct of his business and so that he represented a serious credit risk. He also took into account the fact that the defendant persisted in his lies to trial, despite Mr Firsht being willing to accept an apology. While there was only direct evidence that four other people had seen the defamatory material, it was easily accessible for the 16 days it was online and press coverage of the trial made it additionally important to “nail the lie”.
The company was awarded the lower sum of £5,000 for the consequential meaning that the company itself could not be trusted due to Mr Firsht’s conduct, and represented a credit risk. The judge said that while a company’s good name is a thing of value, it can only be hit in the pocket and there was no evidence of actual financial loss (the company was still the market leader). However, the damages were awarded to vindicate the company’s good name.
Finally, with regard to the misuse of private information, the judge accepted that as a very private person Mr Firsht was “shocked and extremely upset” to see personal details about him (especially false details about his sexuality) “laid bare for all to see”. However, because aggravated damages had already been factored into the sum awarded in relation to the libel, he was only awarded ordinary damages of £2,000 for the misuse of private information
Mr Firsht’s total award from the court was £22,000 in damages.
This case demonstrates that it can be easy to create false profiles on free social networking sites if they do not require payment and there is no verification of credit card details or addresses. This case will be welcomed by companies who have been defamed on social networking sites, blogs and review sites as it confirms their ability to recover damages as a result of defamatory postings.
However, the defendant was able to be identified because he created the false profile at home. If the false profile had been created in an internet café or the person creating the profile had disguised his IP address or was located abroad, it would have been far more difficult to identify the wrongdoer and bring an action against them.