Why your senator can't Skype

By Julianne Pepitone, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Internet video-chatting service Skype helps connect people across the globe -- but your representatives in Congress are banned from using it.

House Democrats and Republicans have been tussling over whether to overhaul technology rules that prohibit lawmakers from using Skype to chat from their offices with the people they govern.

Their obstacle: A 2006 ban on running peer-to-peer applications behind House and Senate firewalls. Such programs allow computers to share files (remember Napster?), which could pose a security risk.

Skype is a peer-to-peer (P2P) program, but its software is a different animal from the popular-with-pirates media swapping applications that gave the P2P field a reputation as the Internet's Wild West. While Skype users can send files directly to others, the company says it's impossible to share documents accidentally -- as users could with file-sharing programs like LimeWire.

Skype has fans on Capitol Hill: House Minority Leader John Boehner, R.-Ohio, and Michele Bachmann, R.-Minn., have championed the Republican-led fight to change Congress' peer-to-peer ban. They object to using taxpayer money to rent old, expensive video-conferencing equipment when Skype offers a better and cheaper option.

Back in April, Boehner and other Republicans sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady, D-Penn., urging them to "make Congress more open" with Skype.

"We are certain that Skype, an increasingly relevant communication tool for Americans already widely used in the private sector, could be easily implemented in Congress in a manner that would not reduce the security of the House IT infrastructure," they wrote. "Rather than lagging behind, let's move one step closer into the future of congressional communications."

Pelosi passed that letter on to the bipartisan House Committee on Administration, which will ultimately make the decision on whether to allow Skype. She asked the committee to determine whether Skype can be used without compromising House security.

Four months later, that evaluation is still creeping along. Staci Pies, Skype's director of government and regulatory affairs, said the company is working with lawmakers to answer their technical questions about the Skype's software.

She spotlighted the talks in a recent post on Skype's blog, writing that Washington sorely needs better communication: "Too often, the public is left scratching their heads, wondering, 'D.C... can you hear me now?'"

Republicans, frustrated with the talks' glacial pace, are tossing fuel on the fire. "House Republicans are listening to Americans and have asked to use Skype to communicate, but Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats continue to block its use," Bachmann wrote recently in an online discussion.

Meanwhile, Democrats are staying mum about the decision's timeline. "We are engaged in ongoing discussions with Skype to address the specific security concerns," said a spokesman for Pelosi.

While the video-chat scuffle wears on, plenty of lawmakers are adopting the technology on their own. Rep. Bobby Bright, D-Ala., held a Skype conference recently with soldiers deployed in Iraq, while Bachmann made a Skype appearance earlier this month in support of her colleague Roy Blunt's Senate run.

But even some of Skype's fans are staying away from taking a stand on the service. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., who regularly chats online with school classes in Vermont, doesn't have a view on whether the Skype ban should be lifted, according to his spokesman.

But he likes the technology: "It's a further dimension of real-time connection. It ties him to the students," Leahy's representative said.

"The whole thing seems ridiculous," policy blog Techdirt grumbled about the wrangle. "Did Congress also have to get approval before Representatives were allowed to use the telephone? It's difficult to understand why forward-looking elected officials need to get special permission to try out communication tools that can help them better represent their constituents."

The real kicker is that Skype fans on Capitol Hill still have an easy way to take advantage of the technology: Even if the software is blocked on their desktops, lawmakers can use Wi-Fi networks or their mobile phones to get around the ban.  To top of page

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