No, Chinese web traffic tidal wave didn’t flow through Wyoming house

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was a good headline written by the New York Times business-technology blog: “Chinese Internet Traffic Redirected to Small Wyoming House.” But an investigation by the Colorado Independent finds the story is mostly bogus.

The initial version of the Times piece explained that a huge wave of Chinese web traffic on Tuesday was re-routed to a number of internet addresses registered to Sophidea Inc., “a mysterious company housed on a residential street in Cheyenne, Wyoming.” According to author Nicole Perlroth, the unassuming house at 2710 Thomes Avenue is both the listed address of Sophidea and the home to Wyoming Corporate Services, Sophidea’s registered agent. The article implied that, due to a domain-name mishap in China’s Great Fire Wall, internet traffic pooled to the small building in Cheyenne for nearly eight hours.

But that didn’t happen. The house was purchased in 2012 by Linden Marketing, a Fort Collins-based marketing firm, and currently serves as the company’s Wyoming office. Linden has clients across southeast Wyoming and began operating from the renovated house in early 2013.

The “mysterious” Sophidea and Wyoming Corporate Services changed addresses last year to 1712 Pioneer Avenue, a quick search on Wyoming Secretary of State’s website reveals.

“We’ve joked that our building has a past, quote-unquote,” said Cara Eastwood Baldwin of Linden Marketing. “We purchased the building from [Sophidea and WCS] and they moved, and then we spent several months remodeling the building before we began doing business there. So we have had no interaction with them whatsoever.”

Eastwood Baldwin debriefed with staff Wednesday afternoon, letting them know that the Times had falsely fingered their HQ as a Chinese internet beehive and that the house was now the center of a media storm.

“I spent some time looking at how widely the story has traveled through the web,” she said. “It’s kind of amazing how the story can have legs and get picked up around the world pretty quickly.”

Perlroth has updated her article, potentially responding to a tip I sent her on Twitter (which I received from a friend who freelanced with Linden in the past), but not before the article was picked up by many major news sites across the internet: the Washington Post, Slate, Gizmodo, etc. Many have 2011 photos or Google Street View pictures of Linden’s headquarters. The Atlantic took a step back (even though it still got the addresses wrong) to clear up the central ambiguity of the article:
[blockquote]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.[/blockquote]

Perlroth conflated the physical location of the IP addresses with Sophidea’s 2012 primary address.

Wyoming’s tax laws have made the state a tax-free haven that attracts international shell companies. Sophidea’s tax documents posted at the secretary of state’s website show that, since 2009, the company has paid $300 in taxes. Perlroth drew heavily from a three-year-old investigation by Reuters, which called the house under its previous owner, Wyoming Corporate Services, “a little Cayman Island on the Great Plains.” More than 2,000 companies or other entities once registered their addresses at the house in Cheyenne, including a corrupt Ukrainian politician and an online poker empire.

According to ARIN, the American Registry for Internet Numbers, and, a web-hosting database, a Fremont, California-based company provides Sophidea an array of IP addresses. Hurricane Electric authorizes Sophidea to use 256 IP addresses (it owns more than 32,000) as a larger parent block to the smaller company. But because IPs are registered only to companies, not to geo-location, Sophidea’s corporate address in Wyoming doesn’t get you any closer to figuring out where China’s internet traffic actually landed.

A representative at Hurricane Electric, who refused to be identified, confirmed that Sophedia’s servers are in one of the two Fremont facilities–in California.  This means that one of the places most of China’s internet traffic probably went was to California, a more popular destination for everything else, anyway.

Back in Cheyenne, Eastwood Baldwin mused about the media storm.

“Obviously our reputation is important to us,” she said. “But my expectation is that the [Times story] won’t have an impact on our business.

“I really empathize with reporters — I used to be a reporter. So I can understand how this is a big, complex issue, and the first thing you do is Google the address. And when there is information out there that is incorrect on the internet, you go to press as quickly as possible. I can definitely empathize.”

*Update: The Times ran Perlroth’s story on A1 Thursday, with a different headline: “Big Web Crash in China: Experts Suspect Great Firewall.” The updated story contains many corrections to the original reporting, though Perlroth also writes that “It is unclear where the company or its servers are physically based…” Reporting by the Independent found a Hurricane Electric employee who refused to be identified but who would confirm that the company servers are housed in California.

[Image of the renovated 2710 Thomes Avenue, courtesy Cara Eastwood Baldwin. Special thanks to Mike Morris for first pointing out the error in the Times’ piece.]


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