Skype in the House

The House of Representatives will now let members and their staff use the video conferencing tool Skype and its lesser-known competitor ooVoo on campus, the Committee on House Administration has announced.

This embrace of Skype by the House has long been in the works. The use of services like Skype was prevented before for security reasons, and House Republicans have been pushing for the change since they were in the minority. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi started a process for reviewing the Skype ban, but her time as leader ran out before that security assessment was finished. The GOP leadership has made Skype's cost-cutting and accessibility gains a centerpiece of a push to bring the House into the 21st century that has also included redesigning House.gov and letting iPads and other mobile devices onto the House floor as long as they don't damage the decorum the House so treasures.

The Skype move is an updating of the House's basic functionality, even if the tools are still hobbled -- Skype and ooVoo use is still limited to the House's campus-wide wireless network so as to "minimize the security risks associated with peer-to-peer networking," according to a Dear Colleague letter sent out by House Administration Chair Daniel Lungren. The wi-fi limitation is meant to create a firewall between the Chinese hackers who would presumably be tempted by those public video portals and the House's internal wired computer network. Beyond that, congressfolk have to abide by custom user agreements worked out with the third-party services, and they can only make use of the Skype and ooVoo's video-conferencing features. No file sharing or screen sharing for them.

Restrictions or no, there's a split in the way government balances the bonuses they get from these cheap technologies and the security concerns that are unique to government computer systems. This is a House of Representatives that has long entertained the idea of passing legislation that would ban or at least severely limit the use of peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies on federal computers. And the recent cybersecurity talk doesn't reassure anyone who thinks House members using these services is a bad idea. In its own ponderous way, the House seems to have put real-world gains above those abstract fears. The appeal of free or cheap phone calls anywhere in the world will do that.

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