If you want to destroy a person’s reputation, smear their character, or peddle malicious gossip about them then Facebook is a useful tool.

Fortunately victims of Facebook “attacks” are fighting back, but why isn’t Facebook protecting their rights better?

Tasmanian politician Paula Wriedt, in hospital this week suffering severe depression, is the latest victim. Relatives of a government driver with whom she had a brief affair used Facebook last week to embarrass Ms Wriedt.

But she could fight back.

On 24 July, UK TV industry executive Matthew Firsht and his company Applause Store Productions won injunctions and £20,000 in damages against a former friend who created a Facebook page that defamed Firsht and his company.

Grant Raphael, who fell out with Firsht over a business dealing, established a Facebook group entitled “Has Matthew Firsht lied to you?” The profile contained false information about Firsht’s s-xual orientation, his religious and political views. It accused him and his company of shoddy business practices.

Firsht and his company sued Raphael for misuse of private information, breach of his right to privacy and defamation. He won on all three counts.

This action is not the first involving Facebook. Earlier this year, a Melbourne man forced another Facebook user who had written defamatory remarks to apologise by taking out newspaper advertisements.

Facebook itself is facing lawsuits from users seeking to find out the identity of individuals who create profiles that defame and reveal private information. In May this year, a US court ruled that Facebook must hand over information about the creators of a fake profile that defamed the headmaster of a school.

MySpace, the Murdoch-owned rival of Facebook, is also a vehicle for character assassination. High Court judge Michael Kirby was the victim of a fake profile that clearly ridiculed and defamed him last year.

Right now, it’s not that easy to get offending material removed from Facebook and MySpace. And if you want to know who is behind the creation of the profile that defames you, then more often than not, MySpace and Facebook require you go to the expense of getting a court-issued subpoena before they will hand over material. By this time, millions of people might have read the offending material.

Facebook and MySpace need to take more pro-active steps to stop character assassination from happening in the first place. Newspapers and online media outlets vet stories before they appear on their websites, and moderate comments from readers. Why aren’t Facebook and MySpace doing the same?

Every individual is entitled to have their privacy respected and not be defamed – these are fundamental rights. Facebook and MySpace should not put people to the expense of having to litigate to protect these rights; they should be vetting the material on their sites day in and day out.

Peter Fray

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