Skype tries to break Congress' ban

Peer-to-peer networking forbidden since 2006

A recent scuffle on Capitol Hill about House members’ inability to access Skype is being resolved, said an official at the Internet voice and video provider. According to Staci Pies, Skype’s director of government and regulatory affairs, both parties are interested in using Skype and other IP broadband applications to communicate with constituents.

There is no ban on Skype per se, but there is a ban on operating peer-to-peer applications — of which Skype is one — within the House’s firewalls. Congress established the ban in 2006 over fears that the software, which lets computers exchange data directly without going through a central server, could be a security risk. An information technology review in 2009 upheld the ban. Congress has also proposed legislation to ban peer-to-peer networks inside federal agencies' firewalls.

Pies said Skype has been meeting with a bipartisan congressional team to work out the security issues. Although progress has been made, she said it is not a simple process because all of the security implications must be addressed beforehand. Pies added that there is no need to rush the effort.

Congress instituted the ban due to a number of fears, including inadvertent file sharing. Peer-to-peer applications such as LimeWire and KaZaa are intended to allow users to designate certain files on their computers as available for sharing so that other users can download copies of them. However, it's possible for a careless user to accidentally make other files open for sharing.

But Pies said Skype does not operate that way because it is a file-transfer rather than a file-sharing system. Skype allows users to send documents to others, but she maintained that it is impossible for inadvertent file sharing to take place via Skype. Additionally, network administrators can disable that feature if necessary.

While Skype works out the security details with House technology staffers, Pies said many representatives are getting in touch with their constituents using Skype over Wi-Fi, which avoids official networks. Lawmakers are also using Skype in the field, she added.

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