Stung by an embarrassing electronic leak last month revealing ethics investigations into dozens of lawmakers, Congress moved Tuesday to prohibit federal employees from using the same type of Internet file-sharing software blamed for the disclosure.
The Secure Federal File Sharing Act, introduced in the House, would bar government employees and contractors from downloading, installing or using so-called peer-to-peer file sharing software such as Limewire without official approval. The bill also would require the White House to develop rules for employees and contractors working on home or personal computers.
The software is popular among computer users trading music, movies and other files over the Internet, often in violation of copyright owners. The underpinning technology also makes other information on a person's computer vulnerable to being downloaded, especially if the software isn't configured properly.
A House ethics committee report outlining inquiries involving dozens of members of Congress leaked onto the Internet after a junior committee staff member saved it on the hard drive of a home computer. The staff member, who had peer-to-peer software, didn't realize the file was unprotected but was subsequently fired anyway.
The secret report detailed investigations that included financial dealings, travel and campaign donations.
The White House Office of Management and Budget advised federal agencies in 2004 not to use peer-to-peer software. Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., the new bill's sponsor, said putting the prohibition in federal law gives it much greater weight.
"We can no longer ignore the threat to sensitive government information that insecure peer-to-peer networks pose," said Towns, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "Voluntary self-regulations have failed so now is the time for Congress to act."
Critics of the software, including the entertainment industry, have complained that personal data, including Social Security numbers, medical records and tax returns, are being unwittingly shared because users are unaware of how the programs work. But national security information, such as details about the electronics in the president's Marine One helicopter, has also been breached.
The entertainment industry long has sought controls on peer-to-peer programs to block the improper or illegal exchange of music. In October, the Recording Industry Association of America predicted the leak of the ethics panel report would be "a powerful catalyst to enact real reforms to protect consumers."