Earlier this month, a Russian court locked up three members of feminist punk rock outfit Pussy Riot, sparking international outrage on a scale that's become increasingly familiar since the beginnings of Arab Spring and Occupy. The group's "crimes" — a guerrilla punk prayer set inside a Moscow cathedral to highlight the blurring lines between church and state under Vladimir Putin's rule — were a prime cut of anti-authoritarian mockery. One high-profile trial and millions of YouTube views later, Pussy Riot’s disruptive antics have showcased once again the visceral political potential of internet video.

The band's struggle, as The New York Times' Melena Ryzik notes, is exceptionally punctual, serving to radicalize citizens and public figures at a time when political corruption, economic injustice, and women's rights are all at the forefront of public debate in the West. Both before and after a harsh two-year sentence was handed down, crowds of livestreaming protestors took to the streets donning brightly-colored balaclavas in support of the punk provocateurs. The website of the court that brought down the verdict was hacked. And an expanding cadre of music celebrities like Bjork, Madonna, and Paul McCartney declared solidarity with the group, loudly calling for their release.

But behind the scenes has been a quieter war: one in which internet broadcasting services have been fighting to defend the powerful speech which flows through their servers from those who would see it silenced.

Of course, in this case, much of that power can be credited to the Kremlin's cartoonish overreaction to what was clearly an act of nonviolent political performance art. But Pussy Riot's 40-second flash protest, spread far and wide by way of social media, was just one significant part of the dissent that has been erupting across Russia — events for which Brad Hunstable, CEO and co-founder of Ustream, has unexpectedly found himself in a front row seat.

Ever since the months surrounding Vladimir Putin's highly controversial re-election, the internet broadcasting service has repeatedly been a target of large-scale DDoS attacks originating from within Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. Upon investigation, Ustream found that the attacks, which occurred on December 6th and again on January 6th, were explicitly targeting citizen journalists broadcasting the anti-Putin protests in Russia.

And for good reason: within two hours, says Hunstable, one Ustream broadcaster had managed to reach 200,000 viewers within Russia alone, with an average viewing time of 20 minutes.

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"I don't know how else to describe it — it was cyber warfare."

Then, as protests resumed during Putin's inauguration on May 9th, Ustream came under a third attack that dwarfed the other two in size and complexity. "We have infrastructure around the world in place to handle most of what's coming at us," Hunstable explained over the phone last week. But this time the attack was adaptive and exquisitely planned, using one method after another to bring the site down for 10 straight hours. "I don't know how else to describe it other than it was cyber warfare."

Considering its long history of corruption and mafia-style retaliation against dissenters (including a knack for making journalists conveniently disappear), many suspected that the Kremlin was involved. Reports pointed the finger at Nashi, a Putin youth organization that had been paying off news organizations and bloggers to post pro-Kremlin articles and harass its opponents online.

It was a turning point for Hunstable and the Ustream staff, who up to then had been avoiding taking sides. "If you had asked me prior to that what Ustream's involvement in these sort of situations would be, I probably would have answered that we take a hands-off approach; we sit on the sidelines and don't take an active role," he said. "After the Russian attacks on Ustream, I've changed that opinion, and I've realized that this might be one of the single most powerful platforms for emerging democracies, stable societies, and good in the world."


Video streaming by Ustream

Since then, the attacks have continued to evolve. In June, Ustream became blocked by major browsers for several hours after hackers managed to inject malicious code into its ad servers.

Ustream isn’t alone, however. Bambuser, another streaming service caught in the crossfire of Russia’s re-election, recently suffered similar DDoS attacks, this time seemingly targeting a user responsible for video broadcasts from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where UK forces had threatened to breach an international treaty in order to capture Wikileaks leader Julian Assange.

And GlobalRevolution.tv, a website which aggregates streams coming in from protests around the world, even had its offices raided and operators arrested during the height of the Occupy protests last year.

Whether defending speech or silencing it, however, both sides clearly acknowledge and amplify the speech’s power. And the sort of empowered speech that a live video broadcast offers (vis-a-vis Arab Spring and Occupy) has proven itself to be especially effective.

"The world was watching because you were watching."

Through his own experiences, Ustream’s Hunstable has grown to believe strongly in the power of citizen broadcasts and condemns attempts to silence them, no matter the source, reason, or underlying cause. "I really believe that that sort of activity is an attack on internet freedom itself," he said. "This is not about one DoS attack and it's not about Ustream; it's about people limiting freedom of assembly on the internet." Even torrent tracker site The Pirate Bay has spoken out against such acts, calling DDoS "a form of censorship" in response to Anonymous attacks on Virgin Media in May.

But whether online or off, in Russia or elsewhere, attempts to silence speech are being met with increasing resistance. "I think it's headed in a positive direction," said Hunstable, "and I think ultimately what will happen is that people will accept the fact that there are more positive benefits in transparency than negative."

"If the UK did not throw away the Vienna Conventions the other night, it was because the world was watching," said Assange from a balcony to the crowd gathered outside London’s Ecuadorian embassy during the tense standoff last week. "And the world was watching because you were watching."