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Virgin-Universal deal may hit 'persistent' file sharers

Along with a music download service launching later this year, the U.K.'s Virgin Media could target some "offenders" with suspension of Internet access.

The U.K.'s Virgin Media could start suspending persistent file sharers on a temporary basis, using information provided to it by Universal Music.

The ISP announced on Monday that it would, before Christmas, launch an all-you-can-eat music download service for its users, based on a monthly subscription fee. The tracks will all be DRM-free.

"In parallel, the two companies will be working together to protect Universal Music's intellectual property and drive a material reduction in the unauthorized distribution of its repertoire across Virgin Media's network," a statement read. "This will involve implementing a range of different strategies to educate file sharers about online piracy and to raise awareness of legal alternatives. They include, as a last resort for persistent offenders, a temporary suspension of internet access."

Virgin pointed out that "no customers will be permanently disconnected and the process will not depend on network monitoring or interception of customer traffic by Virgin Media."

A spokeswoman for Virgin told ZDNet UK on Monday that the suspensions "could be as little as five minutes, an hour or a day." She said the idea of suspensions was very much in the process of being worked out -- they may not even happen -- and would only be launched on a "trial" basis.

As for how Virgin will know which persistent file sharers it should be suspending, the spokeswoman said this knowledge would be derived from information coming from the record company.

Universal will use technology from the Danish antipiracy firm DTecNet to scour file-sharing networks -- not Virgin's own network -- and log the IP addresses of "persistent" file sharers, along with the time of the transfers in question. That information will go back to Virgin, who will use it to identify the file sharer and begin warning them of possible action that could be taken against them.

DTecNet has already been working with U.K. content companies for some time to do much the same thing, and is also working with RIAA in the United States.

Virgin's spokeswoman did not give any further details of the number of warnings a persistent file sharer would get, the exact pricing of the music service (although ZDNet UK understands it will be somewhere around the cost of two CDs a month) or which other record companies Virgin is in talks with regarding a similar service.

For the latest on the the furious debate going on about file sharing and Net neutrality in Europe right now, check out this story we posted last week.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.