Data Colonialism and the Role of the Public Sector 

Data is not only the oil of the digital age, but also a commodity that can be unethically obtained or misused. Prof. Dr Ulises Mejîas from the State University of New York, College at Oswego is a luminary in the field of data sovereignty. In May, we have the great pleasure to welcome him at the BFH Business School. We talked with him about his visit in Switzerland and his keynote speech at TRANSFORM 2022 which focuses on data colonialism. 

You are a professor at the State University of New York. How did the collaboration with the BFH Business School come about? 

My co-author Nick Couldry and I were invited by Matthias Stürmer last year to participate in a virtual conference, which resulted in many interesting exchanges and conversations. This visit is a continuation of that productive collaboration.   

 You will be coming to Berne and the BFH Business School in May. What are your plans for this visit? 

I am coming to Switzerland (my first visit!) as part of the Fulbright Specialist program, which matches experts who have specialized knowledge with host institutions looking to expand their knowledge in that area. During my two weeks here, I will be delivering a keynote lecture at the TRANSFORM-2022-conference, presenting a further lecture to the public, talking with press representatives, conducting workshops with students, and participating in other activities. 

 Do you have any expectations out of this visit? 

I believe this will be a unique opportunity to create interdisciplinary dialogues with BFH to create interdisciplinary dialogues. I think Switzerland is a very interesting place to discuss my work because the issue of “data sovereignty” is acquiring importance in policy debates here. I hope that our conversations can help us develop a critical, equitable and inclusive understanding of the study of persistent social data mining and some of its negative social impacts. 

In your keynote lecture at TRANSFORM 2022, you will talk about data colonialism. What is the main message you want to deliver to the participants?

The first part of my keynote will be based on the work Nick Couldry and I developed in our book The Costs of Connection: How Data Colonizes Human Life and Appropriates it for Capitalism (published by Stanford University Press, and currently being translated into Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Turkish). We argue that the role of data in society needs to be grasped as not only a development of capitalism, but as the start of a new phase in human history that, in importance, rivals the emergence of historic colonialism. This new “data colonialism” is based not on the extraction of natural resources or labor, but on the appropriation of human life through data.  

In the second part I will focus on the role of the public sector in the context of an emerging discussion of data sovereignty. I will talk about the opportunities and challenges that the public faces when confronting data extractivism. While lessons can be learned from past decolonization struggles, the talk will conclude by examining what it might mean to apply those lessons in other contexts. 

About the person

Ulises Ali Mejías is associate professor of Communication Studies and director of the Institute for Global Engagement at the State University of New York, College at Oswego. He is a media scholar whose work encompasses critical internet studies, network theory and science, philosophy and sociology of technology, and political economy of digital media. He is the author of Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) and various articles including “Disinformation and the Media: The case of Russia and Ukraine” in Media, Culture and Society (2017, with N. Vokuev), and ‘Liberation Technology and the Arab Spring: From Utopia to Atopia and Beyond’ in Fibreculture (2012). He is the principal investigator in the Algorithm Observatory project. 


1. TRANSFORM 2022 – Shape the State 31.May

The call for “data sovereignty” and “digital sovereignty” has already reached the political agenda in Europe, but in Switzerland the topic is only just gaining momentum. What efforts are there in the state and the economy to escape the dependence of the tech giants? How should public cloud services be offered, for example? In addition to the already defined strategic directions of a sovereign digital policy from the perspective of decision-makers in politics, administration and business, concrete examples of sovereign applications by municipalities, cantons and the federal government will be presented in the second part of the conference. The Institute Public Sector Transformation would like to discuss the transformation of the digital space towards more sovereignty with experts.

Reserve the date and secure your ticket: Register now.

2. Press Talk 24. May, 10.15 am in the Staatslabor, Bern

If you are interested to participate, please contact Annique Lombard  to register.

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AUTHOR: Jasmine Streich

Jasmine Streich is a research associate at the Institute Public Sector Transformation of the Business School at Bern University of Applied Sciences. Her research work focuses on digital accessibility and the transformation of the public sector.

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