The Republicans won the Skype battle in the US House of Representatives yesterday. Congressmen and women can now use the popular video chat tool to contact colleagues and constituents for Official Business.
A joint statement by Committee on House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and House Technology Operations Team Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced the decision:
“We are pleased to announce that, after working with Republican Leaders and various House stakeholders, Members and staff can now use popular video teleconferencing services within the House network to communicate with constituents. During a time when Congress must do more with less, we believe that these low-cost, real-time communication tools will be an effective way to inform and solicit feedback from constituents.”
In 2006, a ban was put on the use of peer-to-peer applications behind House and Senate firewalls. The ban was intended to protect against accidental file sharing with P2P services like Limewire. Skype was also, despite the inability to accidentally share files over the popular VoIP program.
Last year, House Republicans sent a letter regarding Skype to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In it, she was urged to “make Congress more open” by allowing Congress to use Skype. Among the proponents of this measure: John Boehner, current House speaker, and Michele Bachmann, current Minnesota congresswoman and GOP presidential hopeful.
"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," Boehner and other House Republicans wrote in the letter. "Rather than lagging behind, let's move one step closer into the future of congressional communications."
The Republicans’ argument was that Skype would save taxpayer money by eliminating the need for expensive, out-of-date video conferencing equipment rentals. Skype is a free Internet service and requires nothing more than a PC and a webcam, which almost every laptop and computer comes equipped with today.
Pelosi passed the letter off to a bipartisan committee for evaluation. Democrats were concerned that the service would need to be modified for safety purposes, to ensure confidential information wasn’t accidentally shared. Though the process dragged on for over a year, Congress will finally get to use Skype for their day to day affairs, but only for Official Business.
“Now Members of Congress can reduce travel time and related costs while increasing and improving communications, transparency, and government accountability through the experience of Skype video calling,” said Staci Pies, who works with Skype’s government relations team, in a blog post on Skype’s website.
“Skype's engineers worked closely with the Congressional network security team to ensure that Skype is used safely for official business,” she said.
Pies also said each individual Congressional office will receive a Skype Manager account which will allow a central person in each office to administer Skype accounts. Congressmen and women and their staff will also be able to manage important privacy settings to make sure high level security is maintained.
So Congress, in the words of Skype’s popular tagline: Take a deep breath. Now that it passed this major hurdle, Skype is likely to stick around for a while in Congressional offices. Is the Senate next?