Questions for the Bureau for Cyberspace and Digital Policy

The RSA Conference saw the announcement of an international cyberspace strategy from the State Department, but there are details yet to be answered.

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

May 16, 2024

5 Min Read
Ambassador-at-Large Nathaniel Fick at the RSA Conference 2024 in San Francisco.
Ambassador-at-Large Nathaniel Fick at the RSA Conference 2024 in San Francisco.Photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

At last week’s RSA Conference, after Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped his keynote address to introduce the nation’s International Cyberspace and Digital Policy Strategy, which is meant to align cybersecurity and tech goals across federal agencies, some members of his team discussed the plans further in a separate conversation with reporters.

Ambassador-at-Large Nathaniel Fick, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Cyberspace Security Liesyl Franz, and other members of the State Department’s Bureau for Cyberspace and Digital Policy fielded a handful of questions about the strategy and what it may mean on the global tech scene.

Fick said tech innovation is increasingly foundational as a source of national or coalition strength and influence in the world. “Traditional measures of strength that we’re familiar with, like GDP or military capacity are more and more downstream of an economy or a coalition’s ability to innovate these key technology areas.”

He went on to say it is essential for the United States to consider the topics of the strategy to be integral to every aspect of the country’s foreign policy. The overarching rubric of the strategy, Fick said, is digital solidarity as an alternative to notions of digital sovereignty. The idea of digital sovereignty has become increasingly popular in recent years, he said, but also called it “an attractive mirage.”

Related:Blinken: US Agencies Will Unify Cyber Approach With ‘Digital Solidarity’

Digital solidarity, on the other hand, speaks to a need to coordinate approaches, Fick said, in such areas as regulatory and standards approaches to support the country’s allies and partners.

He also said there is a need to adopt a full ecosystem approach as part of the guiding principles for digital solidarity. “The last time the US released one of these strategies, it was more narrowly focused on cybersecurity,” Fick said. “That’s increasingly hard to do today when it’s difficult to talk about cybersecurity without talking about the underlying architecture where all the data is transmitted. It’s hard to talk about cybersecurity without talking about the prospects of quantum computing and what it means for encryption. It’s hard to talk about anything without talking about AI.”

The strategy also speaks to the full life cycle of issues seen across stages of tech, he said, which includes the development, deployment, use, maintenance, and capacity building to ensure that allies and partners can stand on their own feet.

The first question from reporters asked about the federal legislation to force the sale of TikTok versus the new digital policy strategy’s emphasis on principles of an open, free and interoperable internet.

Related:Four Horsemen of Cyber Reunite at the RSA Conference

“Our obviously stated aspiration, and will remain the North Star aspiration, is the goal of maintaining a global interoperable internet,” Fick responded. He pointed out that Congress is a separate branch of government from the executive branch, and there is a need to partner on such issues. “I think the opinion of the executive branch right now, and I would put the State Department obviously in in alignment with that, is that TikTok is sui generis,” Fick said. “This is a case of national security; it’s not a slippery slope to determine which platforms can and can’t be used in a free and open society. It’s not a ban, right? It’s a divestiture, which is another important distinction that sometimes gets lost.”

Fick also shared some of details of his recent trip to China, alongside Secretary Blinken, which included a meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. “On technology issues there were a handful of things that we discussed,” Fick said. “One was a mutual commitment to hold a bilateral dialogue in the weeks ahead in a third country on AI safety and trust in order to ensure that we maintain a communications channel on that -- the most important and transformative of the various emerging technologies that are in front of us.”

Related:Mayorkas, Easterly at RSAC Talk AI, Security, and Digital Defense

Cybersecurity was also on the table for discussion, a touchy topic given the activities of China-backed hacktivists Volt Typhoon. “Secretary Blinken was very clear that holding American critical infrastructure at risk, especially civilian critical infrastructure, is dangerous,” Fick said. “It’s escalatory. It’s unacceptable. We all the -- US and China alike, and every other UN state -- have repeatedly reaffirmed the framework for responsible state behavior in cyberspace and Chinese behavior in this regard is a violation of those norms that we’ve all agreed to.”

When asked how far the digital solidarity framework can change things if Russia, China, and other belligerent nations continue to stand apart from US policy, Fick said part of the strategy is to embrace an “affirmative vision,” especially as many nations that do not want to be forced into a choice of compliance.

“It’s incumbent upon states, including the US, that have a lot of innovative horsepower in these areas, that are home to a lot of the companies that have a lot of the talent that have, frankly, the power in the world to set, to some extent, or influence the rules of the road,” Fick said. “It’s incumbent upon us to provide, to lead with a positive, attractive, affirmative, inclusive vision of what that shared technology future can look like.”

Due to his schedule, Fick departed the meeting before InformationWeek’s questions could be presented. The following questions were submitted by e-mail to a State Department representative immediately after the session:

  • What are the barometers for the effectiveness of this strategy?

  • Is it matter of how many other nations join in solidarity with this strategy? How closely those nations comply with the strategy?

  • Is it about the presence the US holds as a tech and cybersecurity leader compared with other countries such as China, who has actively sought a predominant position?

  • How will the results of this strategy be measured?

Should the State Department respond to these questions, the story will be updated.


About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

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