Members of the House and their constituents can now get more face time with each other – on their computers.
On Tuesday, the House Administration Committee overcame security fears and finally approved the official use of Skype and ooVoo, video conferencing software that allows users to make calls over the Internet.
“Improving constituent communications and increasing transparency has been a top priority for me as chairman of House Administration,” Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., wrote in a letter on Tuesday. “During a time when Congress must do more with less, utilizing low-cost, real-time communication tools is an effective way to inform and solicit feedback from your constituents.”
The decision has been a long time in coming. In April 2010, top House Republicans sent a letter to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Administration Committee, asking them to lift the ban on certain video teleconferencing software, including Skype.
On Tuesday, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who signed the 2010 letter, said the technology would allow the House to be more open and give Americans “real-time” access to their government.
While software like ooVoo and Skype were never specifically banned, the programs were lumped together with “peer-to-peer” applications, which allow computers to share files. Congress has blocked the use of such programs since 2006 because of security concerns. Tuesday’s announcement was somewhat symbolic because under the ban, Capitol Hill users were often able to access the services via Wi-Fi or mobile devices even if they were blocked on desktop computers.
Government websites, including the Senate site, have been attacked repeatedly by hackers, and House Technology Operations Team Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, voiced concerns over the implications of adopting online teleconferencing technology.
But in a joint statement issued on Tuesday, Chaffetz and Lungren said that the Administration Committee had worked to ensure that “members and staff can utilize these services while maintaining the necessary level of IT security within the House network.”
Lungren said the House worked with Skype and ooVoo to overcome security concerns and ensure that the networks remain safe.
Making sure online conferencing could be done securely was key to winning House approval, Staci Pies, Skype’s director of government relations, wrote in a blog post.
“Skype's engineers worked closely with the congressional network security team to ensure that Skype is used safely for official business,” Pies wrote. “Each of the congressional offices will have access to their own Skype Manager account, so one central person in each office can administer the Skype accounts. In addition, members of Congress and their staff can personally configure important privacy settings to provide the highest level of security available on Skype.”
Video calls can be blocked until a user “answers” the call, Pies said.
Under the program developed with the companies, lawmakers and staff will be required to abide by detailed rules posted on the HouseNet intranet site.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who co-chairs the Republican New Media Caucus and also serves on the House Technology Operations Team, said the technology would allow Congress to conduct its business more effectively.
“Now that I can use Skype and ooVoo in my official office, I will be better able to communicate with my constituents and solicit their feedback, while also saving precious taxpayer dollars,” Rodgers said in a statement.
This article appears in the June 28, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.