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Congress Enters Web Videoconferencing Age

House of Representatives members now can use Web-based Skype and ooVoo services to conduct official business over the House Wi-Fi network.

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Web-based videoconferencing is the latest Internet technology to be embraced by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Members of the House can now use online VoIP and videoconferencing services Skype and ooVoo to conduct official Congressional business, said the Congressional Committee on House Administration.

The idea behind the move is to leverage the technology to reduce costs related to traveling to conduct face-to-face meetings with constituents and to foster better engagement with the public, according to the House.

"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," Committee on House Administration chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and House Technology Operations Team chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said in a statement.

The move comes after House members already have been permitted to use iPhones and iPads on the chamber floor, and as lawmakers are considering expanding the use of such devices to streamline collaboration and cut costs by reducing the amount of paper produced, among other things.

Deciding to allow the use of the Skype and ooVoo videoconferencing services was not taken without careful consideration for security, however. Both companies worked with the House to ensure their service would not compromise the security of communications being transported in and out of the Congressional network.

In the end, the House decided to allow the use of Skype only over its Wi-Fi network to avoid the risks associated with peer-to-peer connections, according to an ooVoo blog post. OoVoo claims its service has no restrictions, a claim corroborated by House spokesperson Sally Wood in a phone interview Wednesday.

She said that the reason for the Skype restriction is that it uses peer-to-peer connectivity, whereas ooVoo does not.

For its part, Skype's engineers worked with the security team responsible for the Congressional network to ensure that the service "is used safely for official business," according to a post by Staci Pies, a member of Skype's government relations team, on the company blog.

She said securing Skype was integral to the House's approval of the technology, and acknowledged that certain allocations have been made. Each of the Congressional offices will have access to its own Skype Manager account, with one person in each office responsible for administering House Skype accounts, Pies said. Skype Manager is the service's business administration tool for creating accounts, allocating credit, and assigning features to the service.

Congressional members and their staffs also can personally configure individual privacy settings to provide the software's highest security setting, she added.

Similarly, Congress members can use ooVoo's Enterprise Administration panel to manage their own permissions and security to ensure safe connections when using the service, according to ooVoo.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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