The top six Internet service providers (ISPs) in England have been strong-armed into adopting anti-piracy schemes that apparently go far beyond their legal responsibilities, and which could end up being used as templates for activities elsewhere in Europe and the world.

BT, Virgin Media, Orange, Tiscali, BSkyB and Carphone Warehouse signed a memorandum of understanding with the BPI (formerly the British Phonographic Industry; it represent British record companies), the body which represents record companies in the U.K.

In April, the British government threatened legislation if the ISPs did not do something voluntary about music piracy. Virgin Media agreed to send letters to subscribers accused by the BPI of illegally downloading music, warning them to stop.

The other five ISPs today announced a similar agreement to similarly warn subscribers identified by the BPI as illegal downloaders.

The British government and the ISPs are still working out what the next steps might be, should a stern letter not have the desired effect. Measures may include throttling back the bandwidth of repeat offenders.

Local surveys suggest that the majority of illegal downloading is performed by teenagers; the six ISPs are also considering fining the parents of repeat teenage offenders.

Britain may also consider a three-strike policy adopted by some ISPs in France – they will cut off service after the third infraction.

The British ISPs are being encouraged to set up their own download services, or ally with existing services, to provide legal alternatives to illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing. BSkyB announced a subscription music service just this week, and other ISPs are also working on new downloading services.

The deal among the British ISPs and the BPI was joined by the U.S.-based Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), among the organizations arguing most vociferously that ISPs worldwide must participate in anti-piracy programs.

British custom concerning ISPs is similar to U.S. law – ISPs are not responsible for the content they carry. The absolutism of that stand is being chipped away, however, by agreements such as the one BPI just forced in the U.K., as well as the agreement New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo recently pressured on U.S. ISPs to cease carrying sites identified as dealing in child pornography (story here).

Meanwhile, Australia, Denmark, Japan and New Zealand are among the countries identified as wrestling with the same issue.

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