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Virgin sends file-sharing warnings to customers

Virgin Media has begun sending letters of warning to some of its customers saying that artists' lobby group the BPI has evidence of illegal file sharing from their accounts. Virgin, the UK's second largest ISP, is the first to take such action.16 Jun 2008

The BPI and other content producers' lobby groups and the Government have urged internet service providers (ISPs) to operate a 'three strikes and you're out' policy to cut off internet access from people found to be engaging in illegal file-sharing.

The Virgin letters contain no threat of disconnection, but do use a BPI-produced report of alleged illegal file sharing as the basis of the warning to customers to stop the activity.

"We understand you may be concerned about this, and you might be unsure how it happened," says the letter. "One possible answer is that other people in your household have used your computer and/or internet connection, and they might have shared these files with others by using unauthorised ‘peer-to-peer/P2P’ filesharing networks like ‘BitTorrent’ or ‘Limewire’."

"However, you need to make sure that these files aren’t downloaded or shared from your Virgin Media internet connection in future," it said.

Content producing and marketing companies have long complained that ISPs earn fees for internet use that is then used in some cases to download the content industry's material without paying for it. ISPs have traditionally argued that they are not responsible for the use made of their service.

The French Government, though, last year backed a three-strikes policy for its ISPs and the UK Government has followed suit. Then-intellectual property minister Lord Triesman told industry earlier this year that the Government would begin the process of producing legislation ordering such a system this autumn if the ISP and content industries could not agree how to work together.

"We want to make sure that our customers are acting fairly and lawfully. So that’s why we’re working with the BPI," said a Virgin Media statement to customers. "We are working with the BPI to contact Virgin Media customers to make them aware of the issues and offer further information to help make sure their enjoyment of music doesn’t damage the copyright holder’s rights."

The BPI's chief executive Geoff Taylor said that the identifying of individual households where alleged illegal sharing takes place was vital for his industry.

"It's naive at best to think licensed music services can prosper without action being taken against illegal downloading," he said in a statement, calling the belief that music should be free on the internet "an implausible and dated belief that the internet will be an endless free lunch".

"More than six and a half million people in the UK illegally access and distribute music, and it is plain wrong to say that this is good for music," he said.

Virgin told customers that the move would not change its policy of only identifying allegedly offending customers when ordered to by a court.

"We won’t provide any information about our customers to any third party, including the BPI, unless we are required to do so with a court order. All we’re doing right now is working with the BPI to help our customers understand more about the issues of unlawful file sharing," it said.

While the current Virgin letters do not threaten account suspension, Taylor said that this is still what the BPI wants from ISPs.

"We want all ISPs to implement a simple, non-technological solution which involves no spying on their customers or invasions of privacy. We call it three steps," he said. "We collect and pass on to the ISP publically available information about their customers' illegal filesharing, and ask them to send advisory letters as outlined above. The possibility of account suspension, and the ultimate sanction of contract cancellation, should follow for those customers who choose not to take the advice."