UK ISPs to Fling Wide Net for Music Pirates

British parents who don’t know what their kids are downloading on the family computer may want to start paying more attention, thanks to a new antipiracy agreement among the six largest Internet service providers in the United Kingdom.

The U.S. music industry will no doubt track developments in the UK. That’s because the effort, announced by BT, Virgin Media, BSkyB, Orange, Carphone Warehouse and Tiscali, will start with warning letters to suspected illegal downloaders but could eventually include penalties like online monitoring and reduced Internet speeds to households.

The plan is a compromise brokered by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and the UK’s version of the FCC, the Office of Communications, or Ofcom. It’s designed to forestall harsher proposals opposed by British ISPs such as a “three-strikes-you’re-out” policy — a disconnection of high-speed Web access for repeat offenders. And it follows in the digital footsteps of French proposals that lean heavily on ISPs to police user behavior.

US Music Industry Reaction

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry applauded the agreement. “It shows that the process of engaging ISPs that was set in motion in France last year is gathering real momentum internationally,” says IFPI CEO John Kennedy.

“The British government has demonstrated that it wants ISPs to join in an effective partnership with creative industries. … This is very good news for a music sector, which is developing new business models but which can only succeed if the widely acknowledged problem of online piracy is resolved,” he added.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has already begun chasing down college students and others who have illegally downloaded large amounts of music and threatened them with legal action if they don’t pay fines.

Can It Work in iTunes’ Backyard?

“It’s clearly an issue of whether they can raise a threat that people will believe,” Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, told the E-Commerce Times. “If there’s a reason to believe that they can identify illegal downloaders and then warn people first, I think they will have some effect on the downloading of music.”

However, it’s not clear whether harsher penalties like a slowing of Internet speeds or online monitoring would scare off illegal downloaders in the U.S. — or whether American ISPs would go along, Gottheil noted. “Most likely, people will find less detectable forms [of downloading]. … The more aggressive music sharers will find ways to hide their activity.”

A Downloading Tax Proposed

Another British proposal floating among government officials there focuses on charging Internet users an annual fee for downloading music, with the proceeds going to help the music industry recover lost sales due to piracy.

Don’t expect that solution surface anytime soon in the U.S., Gottheil commented. “It seems to me that that would be viewed as a penalty for those who legitimately download.”

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