BT, Virgin Media, BSkyB and Talk Talk are being asked to sign up to a voluntary code for policing illegal downloading

Broadband providers are being asked to create a database of customers illegally downloading music, films and books, which could be used to disconnect or prosecute persistent offenders.

Measures to combat digital piracy will be among the topics discussed at a Downing Street breakfast on 12 September, when record label bosses and their trade association, the BPI, have been invited to meet with David Cameron.

BT, Virgin Media, BSkyB and TalkTalk are being asked by music and film companies to sign up to a voluntary code for policing illegal downloading. Negotiations have been underway for some months with the BPI, which represents the major labels including Warner, Sony and Universal, and the British Video Association, whose members include the BBC and Hollywood studios.

In a three-month period from November 2012 to January this year, 280m music tracks were digitally pirated in the UK, along with 52m television shows, 29m films, 18m ebooks and 7m computer software or games files.

The data, collected by communications regulator Ofcom, suggests 18% of internet users aged 12 and over have recently pirated content, while just 9% fear getting caught. Last month Breaking Bad was released to UK viewers on Netflix and iTunes within hours of its US airing in an apparent attempt to limit piracy.

Studios and music labels want action now because the Digital Economy Act, which was created to combat piracy, has yet to be implemented despite being voted into law by parliament in 2010. Delays mean the act will not come into force until 2014 at the earliest, and could be pushed back until after the general election in 2015.

A key part of any voluntary agreement is the creation of a database of repeat offenders. Initially, customers would receive letters from their broadband company saying their internet address had been used for illegal downloads.

The letters could warn of consequences and direct internet users to legal sites selling music, videos and books. Those who received three such letters could then face sanctions.

Measures could include throttling internet connections to slow them down, blocking users from particular sites, disconnecting offenders from broadband for a limited period, and ultimately prosecution. In order to implement these measures, broadband companies would need to keep a list of those customers they had sent letters to.

But there are concerns that such a database could be illegal under the Data Protection Act, which states companies can only retain information about individuals where it is needed for commercial purposes.

Emma Hutchinson, a Virgin Media spokeswoman, said: "Music and film companies are speaking to broadband providers about how to address illegal file-sharing but what they're currently proposing is unworkable."

In 2009 and 2010, Virgin Media voluntarily sent letters to customers who were reported by rights holders to be file sharing. However, the company did not keep a record of those who had received letters, or disclose their identity to any third parties.

A spokeswoman for TalkTalk said: "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."

Talks with the prime minister next week will cover a range of ways to support the music industry, including encouraging legal digital music sales in the UK and abroad, according to a spokesman for the BPI. He added: "The PM is a keen fan of British music and has invited some key industry figures to discuss how it can be further supported, both here and abroad... As concerns the Digital Economy Act, we will discuss with government the need for swifter action to reduce online copyright theft, improve consumer awareness of legal services and make the UK the leading digital economy in Europe."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the government would not force broadband companies to adopt any fresh measures. She added: "We are aware of industry discussions, and we would welcome a system that was effective and fair to consumers." © Guardian News and Media 2013

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