Record labels seek piracy offender database creation in UK

Your Internet provider may start recording your online activity if they agree to a new code designed to penalize pirates -- and if record labels have their way.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

In the United Kingdom, broadband providers BT, Virgin Media, BSkyB and Talk Talk have been asked to create a database registering customers that illegally download pirated material including books, music, television shows and films.

According to The Guardian, the broadband providers -- some of whom have already blocked access to torrent indexing websites including The Pirate Bay, no matter how easy the blocks are to circumvent -- have been asked to consider new ways to deter the high rates of illegal content downloads.

Record labels have asked BT, Virgin Media, BSkyB and Talk Talk to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct which would record transgressions by ISP customers when they illegally download copyrighted material. Once tracked, customers could receive a letter warning them to stop. If customers continue, as part of a 'three strike' system, they may find their Internet speeds throttled, website access blocked, or potential prosecution for persistent illegal downloading.

Negotiations on a potential code have been underway for months between ISP providers and the British Video Association, whose members include the BBC, Hollywood Studios, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney and Twentieth Century Fox.

The new measures, which would require storing data on customers who download content illegally, may also need a change in law. Under the Data Protection Act, such information can only be held about individuals when related to "commercial purposes," rather than to record apparently illegal activity.

Virgin Media trialed a campaign -- no longer operating -- to send out letters to customers who use their broadband to download illegal content in 2008. The firm also blocks websites under court orders like other ISPs in the U.K., but does not hand information over to third parties or retain information exposing customer identities.

Emma Hutchinson, a Virgin Media spokeswoman, told ZDNet:

"Music and film companies are speaking to broadband providers about how to address illegal file-sharing but what they're currently proposing is unworkable."

A spokeswoman for TalkTalk told The Guardian:

"We are involved in discussions about measures to address illegal file-sharing and ultimately would like to reach a voluntary agreement. However our customers' rights always come first and we would never agree to anything that could compromise them."

According to Ofcom, one in six U.K.-based internet users aged 12 or over downloaded digital entertainment illegally this year. Over the three month period to the end of January 2013, 280 million music files were obtained through piracy. In addition, 52 million television shows and 29 million film files were illegally acquired. E-books accounted for 18 million files, and computer software & video games were downloaded 7 million times.

The agency suggested that while 18 percent of Internet users in the U.K. have recently downloaded pirated content, only nine percent worry about being caught in the act.

The Digital Economy Act was voted into law in 2010, but is yet to be implemented in the United Kingdom. The legislation, which allows ISP providers to send letters to suspected illegal downloaders and potentially disconnect services, will not be enforced until at least 2014 due to continual legal challenges. ISPs have criticised the act, as it may "unfairly" force them to police Internet activity.

The act will be one of a number of topics discussed on 12 September, where record label representatives will meet U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

Update 15.13GMT: This posted was updated with Virgin Media's response and clarification on the circumstances surrounding blocked websites.

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