SAN FRANCISCO — The story behind what may have been the biggest Internet failure involves, among other characters, a little-known company in a drab building in Wyoming and the world’s most elite army of Internet censors a continent away in China.
On Tuesday, China’s 500 million Internet users were unable to load websites for eight hours. Nearly every Chinese Internet user and Internet company, including major companies such as Baidu and Sina.com, was affected.
The reason? Technology experts say China’s own Great Firewall — a vast collection of censors and snooping technology used to control Internet traffic in and out of China — was likely to blame, mistakenly redirecting the country’s traffic to several sites normally blocked inside China, some connected to a company based in the Wyoming building.
Chinese authorities put a premium on control. The censors police access to the Internet to smother any hint of anti-government sentiment, jail dissidents and journalists, blacklist major websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and block access to media outlets such as The New York Times and Bloomberg News.
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Tuesday’s downtime shows that sometimes, the efforts can backfire.
The China Internet Network Information Center, a state-run agency that deals with Internet affairs, said it had traced the problem to the country’s domain-name system. One of China’s biggest anti-virus software vendors, Qihoo 360 Technology, said the problems had affected about three-quarters of the country’s domain-name system servers.
The domain-name servers, which act like an Internet switchboard, routed traffic from some of China’s most popular sites to an Internet address that, according to records, is registered to Sophidea, a company based, at least on paper, in that Wyoming building, in Cheyenne.
“I have never seen a bigger outage,” said Heiko Specht, an Internet analyst at Compuware, a technology company based in Detroit. “Half of the world’s Internet users trying to access the Internet couldn’t.”
With half the world’s Internet traffic flooding Sophidea’s Internet address, Specht said he believed it would have taken less than a millisecond for the company’s servers to crash.
Until last year, Sophidea was based in a 1,700-square-foot house on a residential block of Cheyenne. The house, along with its former tenant, a business called Wyoming Corporate Services, was the subject of a Reuters article in 2011 that found that about 2,000 business entities had been registered to the home. Among them were the owner of a company charged with helping online-poker operators evade online-gambling bans.
Wyoming Corporate Services, which helps clients anywhere in the world create companies on paper and is designated to receive lawsuits on their behalf, moved its headquarters 10 blocks from its former base last year. Gerald Pitts, the Wyoming Corporate Services president, said in an interview Wednesday that his company acted as the registered agent for 8,000 businesses, including Sophidea, although he did not know what the company did.
Technology experts say Sophidea appears to be a service that reroutes Internet traffic from one website to another to mask a person’s whereabouts, to make it easier to send spam, for example — or to evade a firewall, like the ones that Chinese censors erect.
It is not clear where Sophidea is physically based.
By late Tuesday, some technologists surmised the disruption might have been caused by Chinese Internet censors who had tried to block traffic to Sophidea’s websites because they could be used to evade the Great Firewall and mistakenly redirected traffic to the Internet address.