WASHINGTON - Like most members of Congress these days, Rep. Michele Bachmann is eager to experiment with social media tools to reach constituents. Already, she has 42,000 fans on Facebook and 18,000 Twitter followers.

But if she wants to use Skype, a program that allows users to video-chat for free online, she can't do it from her congressional office.

Bachmann has been an outspoken advocate among House Republicans pushing to allow Skype on congressional computers. Skype is one of many "peer-to-peer" programs that have been banned in the House since 2006 because of security concerns.

Bachmann says Skype is an inexpensive way to reach constituents and embrace video technology, and she and other Republicans have asked the Democratic leadership to allow its use.

"I've had experience with doing over a dozen of these in town hall style on the campaign side," Bachmann said in an interview. "People loved it. And it's free -- that's what was great."

So why is Skype, used by 560 million people worldwide according to the company, banned in Congress? The legislative branch is sometimes known for its stodgy, old-time traditions -- no electronic devices are allowed in the House or Senate galleries -- but Skype is currently forbidden for fear hackers could use it to wreak havoc on the congressional computer network.

In a recent hacking example, an e-mail hoax was sent to media outlets from an official Senate e-mail address, claiming that four Democratic senators had died of cancer, even though all four are alive and well. The hoax is under investigation.

Virtual town hall

Skype is a program that provides a video-chatting service between users online. Like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and countless other social networking tools, it allows congressional members to reach a mass audience. With Skype, constituents can gather at a location like a library or theater and hold a "virtual town hall" with their representative in Washington.

While Skype can be used by members campaigning outside their offices, Bachmann said that avenue doesn't reach all of her constituents, which are currently served just by telephone conference calls. Skype can host virtual town halls at essentially no cost, Bachmann said, and allows for video and document sharing.

The danger with peer-to-peer software is that users are vulnerable to network breaches and to data getting intercepted as it travels between computers.

"The reason people worry about using tools like these is they are inherently insecure," said Joseph Konstan, a University of Minnesota computer science professor. "The design of Skype is something that hasn't been carefully scrutinized, and so it may very well be there are bugs in there."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has asked a House committee to examine how Skype could be used safely.

The politics of Skype

Bachmann has framed the subject in political terms, writing on the GOP "America Speaking Out" website: "House Republicans are listening to Americans and have asked to use Skype to communicate, but Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats continue to block its use."

But Kyle Anderson, spokesman for Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady, D-Penn., noted that Skype was banned in 2006 when Republicans controlled Congress.

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723