President Joe Biden's nominee to become the first U.S. ambassador at large for cyberspace and digital policy faces a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday as the administration pushes forward with an effort to assert U.S. leadership in the development of global standards and best practices for the modern internet.
Nate Fick, a technology company executive and former U.S. Marine, is in line to fill the position, which will place him in charge of the recently created bureau within the State Department.
In announcing the formation of the new bureau last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. has "a major stake in shaping the digital revolution that's happening around us and making sure that it serves our people, protects our interests, boosts our competitiveness, and upholds our values."
That includes developing policies meant to deter countries such as China, Russia and North Korea, which the U.S. has accused of financing malign online activity, including hacking private businesses and meddling in U.S. elections.
Experts say the creation of the new bureau and the placement of Fick at its head, should he be confirmed, will help establish certainty about U.S. policy related to the internet. The bureau combines three pre-existing policy units within the State Department: International Cyberspace Security, International Information and Communications Policy, and Digital Freedom.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said U.S. efforts to focus its approach to digital diplomacy have been haphazard, starting strong at the end of the Obama administration, but fizzling in later years.
"We kind of dropped the ball on it," Segal told VOA. "And in that time, lots of other countries developed their own cyber ambassadors. The U.S. efforts on the international stage have been somewhat uncoordinated and kind of coming from many different angles. It also meant that many people just had no idea who to talk to."
James A. Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA that if Fick is confirmed, he will come to the job at a moment where American leadership could be critical to the way policies shaping the modern internet evolve around the world.
"There's a real opportunity here for the U.S. to think about how we shape the rules and institutions that will govern technology that will govern cyberspace," he said.
"Challenge 1 for the U.S. is to work with other democracies to come up with rules, and maybe institutions, for security and digital policy," he said. "Challenge 2 … is to come up with the right kind of diplomatic strategies, the right kind of international policies to deal with some very aggressive opponents. And it's not just hacking. It's not election interference. It's a battle over who controls the digital environment."
Arguing against authoritarianism
Lewis said that, globally, there are two leading approaches to regulating activity in cyberspace. In North America, Europe and among many American allies in the Pacific, the tendency is toward lighter regulation biased in favor of the free flow of information. At the same time, countries such as Russia, China and Iran sharply limit the flow of information to and among their citizens.
"But then there's everyone else, mainly in the developing world," Lewis said. "And they're kind of fence-sitters. Their thing is, 'Tell me what works best for my economy. Tell me what works best for my national sovereignty.'"
Lewis said the task facing the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy is to make the case for developing countries to incorporate openness and freedom into their regulation of the internet rather than authoritarian control.
"That's where the new bureau has a challenge, but also an opportunity," he said.
A native of the U.S. state of Maryland, Fick graduated from Dartmouth College with a bachelor's degree in classics and immediately joined the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant in 1999. He was still in the Marines when the 9/11 attacks ushered in the global war on terror, and he ended up serving combat tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
During his time in Iraq, Fick's platoon was accompanied by Rolling Stone magazine journalist Evan Wright for several months. Wright's subsequent book, "Generation Kill," won several awards for its unflinching description of the reaclities of modern combat and was turned into a miniseries by HBO. Fick is a featured character in the story.
Fick is also an accomplished writer. His memoir, "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer," was a New York Times bestseller.
After leaving the Marines, Fick earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard Kennedy School. He was CEO of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based national security think tank, before becoming CEO of Endgame, a cybersecurity software firm that was acquired by the cloud computing firm Elastic in 2019.
Having worked with Fick in the past, Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations said he is "very familiar with all the issues that the ambassador is going to have to deal with."
He described Fick as "extremely straightforward, very open and friendly. He's got a pretty good sense of humor."
Segal said he expects Fick's background with technology companies will be a major asset if he is confirmed.