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Page last updated at 20:35 GMT, Thursday, 24 July 2008 21:35 UK

Payout for false Facebook profile

The High Court was told the fake Facebook page featured private information about him

A businessman whose personal details were "laid bare" in fake entries on the Facebook social networking website has won a libel case at the High Court.

Mathew Firsht was awarded 22,000 in damages against an old school friend, Grant Raphael, who created the profile.

The judge ruled that Mr Raphael's defence - that the entry was created by mischievous party gate-crashers at his flat - was "built on lies".

The profiles were on Facebook for 16 days until they were taken down.

The court heard that Mr Raphael created a false personal profile for Mr Firsht, and a company profile called "Has Mathew Firsht lied to you?".

It's important that if anybody does have information which is written about them which is totally untrue... there is now a chance of finding out who those people are
Mathew Firsht

The judge heard that the private information concerned Mr Firsht's whereabouts, activities, birthday and relationship status. It falsely indicated his sexual orientation and political views.

Mr Firsht said it included allegations that he owed substantial sums of money which he had repeatedly avoided paying by lying, and that he and his company were not to be trusted.

He was awarded 15,000 for libel and 2,000 for breach of privacy. His company was awarded 5,000.

Speaking to the BBC after the case, Mr Firsht said the false profile had made him "extremely angry".

It had taken a "lot of energy, a lot of effort and a lot of time, and a lot of expense" to trace who was behind it, he said - and to win the case was "amazing".

"It's important that if anybody does have information which is written about them which is totally untrue... that people realise there is now a chance of finding out who those people are."

'Utterly far-fetched'

The two former friends went to school together in Brighton but fell out about six years ago over a business dispute.

The significance of this case is that it shows that what you post is not harmless, but has consequences
Jo Sanders
Media lawyer

Deputy Judge Richard Parkes QC said that by the time the dispute arose, Mr Firsht was highly successful, but Mr Raphael - whose company had gone into voluntary liquidation - "was not".

The judge said Mr Firsht would have accepted an apology if Mr Raphael had offered one at an early stage, thus avoiding the distress and expense of litigation.

Mr Raphael said that "strangers" who attended an impromptu party at his house in Hampstead in north London sneaked off to a spare bedroom and created the profiles on his PC.

But the judge described his claim as "utterly far-fetched".

'Very rare case'

Facebook said in a statement: "Facebook does not permit fake profiles on its site. Fake profiles are an abuse of our terms of use and they will be removed.

"When fake profiles are reported we thoroughly investigate and remove profiles found to be in violations of our terms of use - just as we did in the case of Mathew Firscht."

Media lawyer Jo Sanders, of Harbottle & Lewis, said the ruling showed that what people posted online "has consequences".

"The golden rule should be to only put up information or images you are happy for everyone to see and are happy to put your name to."

But computer security consultant and former hacker Robert Schifreen said it was "very easy" to set up false pages about people on such networking sites - and it could be difficult to trace who was responsible.

It's very easy to be somebody else on a website if you want to be
Computer security consultant Robert Schifreen

"The problem with these free websites that don't require payment means there's no easy way of verifying someone's identity... You haven't got their address, you haven't got their credit card details, so anybody can set something up."

It was also easy to say what you write online from places such as internet cafes or restaurants offering free wifi access, which are "relatively untraceable", he said.

Nor is it easy to bring libel actions, he said - and this is a "very rare case".

"It's not easy to get legal aid for libel cases, it's not easy to do it especially when the website is based in a different country to where you're suing somebody, and you really do have to persevere... but it can be done."

He added: "it's very easy to be somebody else on a website if you want to be. The internet does make it easy. But you do need to be aware that if you start libelling somebody - rather than just having a bit of fun - then it can be a major legal problem."

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