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U.S. House considers allowing lawmakers to use Skype
Scripps Howard News Service


July 28, 2010

WASHINGTON - Skype may soon join Facebook and Twitter as tools that members of Congress are using to communicate with their constituents.

A free program used to make video and phone calls, Skype has been banned from House computers since 2006 for security reasons.

"The peer-to-peer software which is the basis for Skype has been deemed a risk to House information system's infrastructure," Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee, said.

The House has video conferencing capabilities, but Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, said they are insufficient. Skype offers a far less expensive way for lawmakers to stay in touch with the folks back home, its backer say.

"It's another example of Congress wasting the people's money," Culberson said. "Why spend tax dollars on outdated video conferencing systems when we could just use a free service like Skype? Speaker Pelosi needs to update the rules so they're in synch with the times."

Anderson said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has asked for the rule to be reexamined.

"At the request of the speaker, the policy is now under review, and we are engaged in ongoing discussions with Skype to address the specific security concerns," Anderson said. "We ... want to determine if Skype can be used without compromising the security of the House."

George Cecala, spokesman for Rep. Bill Posey, R- Fla., said tele-town hall meetings are not the only costs that could be eliminated by using Skype. Air time with local news stations would also be cheaper.

"When I want to get my boss down to the House Recording Studio to talk to the local Florida station, it costs $200 to $250 for a 15-minute window. If we were to use Skype, we could communicate with the news station for free," Cecala said.

Stacy Pies, Skype's director of government relations and regulatory affairs, said that, although Skype is considered a peer-to-peer software, it differs from programs such as LimeWire, a popular file-sharing software often used to download music.

In 2009, a security breach occurred, which House members blamed on LimeWire, Pies said. When someone downloads LimeWire, any information the user decides to share is available to other users of the software.

"With Skype, I can send you a document using our file transfer capabilities, but I can only send it to you because I've chosen you," Pies said. "No other documents on that computer are available to you other than what I transferred to you."

Skype is considered safe enough to use on other government computers. Maj. Juanita Chang, the Army's director of online and social media, said she has no problem using Skype from her office.

"We cannot say that the entire Army is open, but I can tell you I am sitting right now in the Pentagon, and I can go on Skype, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter," Chang said. "I have Skype up right now."

Some House members believe the ban may be more about a lack of demand. Vincent Perez, a spokesman for Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said Facebook and YouTube were banned until people realized they would be useful tools and asked for permission to use them.

"It takes time for the House to adopt new technology," he said. "Once people start asking for it, things will change, but there is not a big demand for it at the House."

Reyes uses Facebook and teleconference town hall meetings to connect with constituents in El Paso, Texas. He does not use Skype because a lot of people in El Paso do not have computers in their homes or access to webcams, Perez said.

Conversations between the House and Skype are ongoing, and Pies said she hopes the process will go faster once summer is over.

"It's been a little bit slow in part because we want to make sure that we have sufficient information as well as capabilities to make any necessary changes that they are requesting," she said.

Although the process seems slow, government institutions have to take security issues into consideration when dealing with new technology, Chang said.

"Considering the importance and function of business that we conduct on our networks, we have to decide whether or not other functions are worth putting that at risk," Chang said. "Should we risk the function of doing business on our nation's defense so that someone can chat on Skype? You kind of have to weigh that."

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