And what is Sophidea's listed mailing address? Yep: 2710 Thomes Avenue in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The New York Times, in a widely circulated story headlined "Chinese Internet Traffic Redirected to Small Wyoming House," calls the apparent censorship snafu "one of the more bizarre twists in recent Internet memory."
It is. It's like that time, in 2002, that web searches for the social news portal Sina.com were briefly redirected to a site for ... Falun Gong. The irony of the whole thing—epic #censorfail!—is, for those of us with First Amendment protections we can comfortably take for granted, delicious.
Here's the thing, though: The other feature that makes the story so tantalizing—the idea of all this errant web traffic, winding up at the doorstep of a Househunters-worthy little home in Wyoming—is flawed. The traffic didn't go to the house; it simply went, as a physical thing, to sites whose IP addresses are registered to a shell company that uses the house as its formal address. (As of 2011, according to that Reuters exposé, some 2,000 shell and shelf corporations listed 2710 Thomes Street as their address. Sophidea is just one of them.)
Furthermore, as Adam Steinbaugh points out, Sophidea also lists, in filings provided to the Wyoming Secretary of State, another mailing address in Cheyenne—this one for a small office building. So the rerouted information packets, had they made it to servers in Wyoming at all, at the very least would have gone to a "small Wyoming house" and a "small Wyoming office building."
But that China-to-Cheyenne rerouting happened, best I can tell, only figuratively: 2710 Thomes Avenue is a mailing address, and mailing addresses have very little to do with Internet network addresses. Here, let Steinbaugh explain:
An IP address (or block of IPs, rather) is registered to a corporation. The registration (which can be found by searching a WHOIS database, such as ARIN) reports the registrant’s mailing address, not the physical location of the computer associated with the IP(s). While Sophidea, Inc. might register a block of IP addresses, the associated servers may be anywhere in the world, far from Sophidea’s corporate headquarters or, as here, mysterious post office box.
Which leaves us with the unsettling question: Where did all that misdirected web traffic actually go?
The even more unsettling answer: We don't know. We, in all likelihood, can't know. I spoke with Dave Lewis, the security advocate at the web content distribution network Akamai. "There's no way we can actually be certain about what actually transpired," he told me—both for political reasons (we're dealing with the notoriously non-transparent Chinese government), and for technological ones (we don't know which IPs of Sophidea's block were actually involved in the re-routing). Steinbaugh, for his part, took addresses from the range of IPs registered to Sophidea and then ran a visual traceroute of them. His findings, with the caveat that "my skills in this arena are rudimentary at best," suggest that the packets ended up somewhere in Asia, with the trace timing out in Malaysia.