Jan. 22, 2014 at 5:11 PM ET
China has an estimated 591 million Internet users, the most of any country. On Tuesday, much of its Web traffic was redirected to IP addresses that belonged to a company that, as of last year, was located in a single, 1,700-square foot home located in a quiet neighborhood in Cheyenne, Wyo., according to The New York Times.
The company, Sophidea Inc., was one of thousands that Wyoming Corporate Services helped set up in the single-story home. They included, according to a 2011 article in Reuters, a number of shell companies, including one that handled money for the jailed former prime minister of Ukraine. (Wyoming Corporate Services, the registered agent for Sophidea, moved last year to a different building in Cheyenne, reports the Times.)
How did Chinese Internet traffic end up all the way in Wyoming?
The Great Firewall
First, it's important to understand how China's Internet is monitored.
Most Web traffic never leaves the country. When it does, it travels through six physical gateways or, perhaps more cynically, chokepoints.
"That is how they essentially are able to set up the Great Firewall," Sarah Cook, senior research analyst at human rights organization Freedom House, told NBC News.
This kind of centralized system makes it easier for the governments of countries like China, Iran and Vietnam to censor Web traffic, but also makes them more vulnerable to both natural disasters and man-made disruptions like glitches and hacks.
It's not entirely clear what happened in this instance. China's official Xinhua news agency cast suspicion on hackers, but some experts think the harm could have been self-inflected.
"This isn't the first time there have been these kind of glitches," Cook said. "These kind of things tend to happen when they are trying to upgrade the capabilities of the Great Firewall."
Not much is known about Sophidea. But hundreds of millions of Chinese Internet users were also redirected to Internet addresses registered to Dynamic Internet Technology (DIT), a company that produces an anti-censorship tool called FreeGate meant to help people evade barriers like the Great Firewall or Iran's "Filternet."
The Chinese government is not too fond of the people who create this software, according to Cook.
"These guys keep a pretty low profile," she said. "Some of them are engineers who work at big Internet companies and volunteer their spare time to help in this cat-and-mouse game against the Chinese censorship system."
DIT has ties to Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline that has been banned by the Chinese government. The irony, according to Cook, is that China might have inadvertently sent traffic to the activists they were trying to stop.
"One of the government's main focuses, especially when they're upgrading the Great Firewall, is try to block these circumvention tools," Cook said. "I could see a situation where the firewall was trying to block traffic, and it backfires and accidentally sends traffic to those locations instead."
Regardless of whether the glitch was caused by hackers or a mistake on China's part, the fact remains that many of the companies and individuals responsible for this software don't want to be found. Hence why they would register an IP address at a small Wyoming house, described by Reuters as "a little Cayman Island on the Great Plains."
The situation isn't likely to change anytime soon, Cook said: "I do think that this kind of incident or other glitches are likely to happen at some point in the future so long as the policies stay the same."
Keith Wagstaff writes about technology for NBC News. He previously covered the tech beat for TIME's Techland and wrote about politics as a staff writer at TheWeek.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kwagstaff and reach him by email at: Keith.Wagstaff@nbcuni.com