On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq-WMD prank, here’s a look at why its creator Anthony Cox registered his protest against the war in such a radically different way.

Ten years ago, in 2003, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. and U.K. governments claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the U.K. government claimed Iraq could attack the West in 45 minutes! The 45-minute claim was plagiarised from a research paper. Even after the invasion, for over a year, the WMD claims were kept alive by statements that the weapons were stored in mobile labs or hidden in secret underground sites, even though in 2002, U.N. inspectors had stated that Iraq had destroyed its chemical and biological arsenal and didn’t have Intercontinental Ballistic missiles (ICBM).

Not everyone in the West believed the two governments’ claims. Over half a million Britons marched in protest against the U.K. joining the “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. Several people in different countries held simultaneous protests worldwide thanks to the Internet. During this time one Internet page that received a lot of attention was the “Cannot Find Weapons of Mass Destruction” Error page.

In February 2003, if one typed weapons of mass destruction inside quotes in the Google search bar and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button, one got the 404 Error page. But it was unlike any other. Instead of saying “Cannot find the Server”, it said “Cannot find Weapons of Mass Destruction.” The webpage was a satire website created by a little-known British pharmacist Anthony Cox who worked in the West Midlands Adverse Drug Reaction Monitoring Centre in the U.K. He also writes a blog on drug safety at http://www.blacktriangle.org

Soon, Cox (then 36 years old) began to get e-mails from U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission and soldiers serving in the Gulf. Cox did not think the government’s “dodgy” dossier was funny and decided to do something about it.

Unlike the majority of the British citizens who took to the streets to protest against the impending war on Iraq, Cox did something radically different. He decided to use the power of the Internet to rubbish the claims made by the U.S. and U.K. governments. What started as a joke earned Anthony Cox worldwide recognition.

But what motivated him? While reading a Guardian article online in early Feb 2003, about Hans Blix’s problems obtaining cooperation in Iraq, he was confronted with the ubiquitous 404 error page, which usually tells the reader that a website is unavailable. With this serendipitous inspiration in mind, along with a text editor and some fiddling in a graphics package, Cox created a spoof 404 “weapons of mass destruction” error page in 20 minutes. Interestingly, the page was deployed and operational well within 45 minutes.

While he got no nasty messages as most people saw it for what it was — a joke satirising both the U.S. and Old Europe’s views — he did get a few e-mails that were less than complimentary. However, he didn’t expect worldwide recognition and he found being interviewed by BBC World Service “interesting”. What started as a spoof got him the attention of family and friends who kept e-mailing him about how and where they heard about his “Weapons of Mass Destruction Error Page”. Cox thinks since the blog movement was taking off just then, it is possible that it contributed to his prank getting such worldwide attention.

What is truly amazing is the fact that what he began as a joke by is in fact a reality today. In February 2003, as a regular British citizen, Cox could not have possibly known that the weapons of mass destruction would not be found, especially when you consider the rhetoric of the respective governments in the U.K. and U.S., followed by the media hype before going to war. Nevertheless, when you take a look at the Error page, it is more accurate than all data the various Western Intelligence agencies came up with then. It is almost predictive of what happened later. Ironically, technical folks globally failed to use the Internet to create awareness while a British pharmacist managed to do it. While most people used the Internet as a medium to network and protest, Cox was the only one who used it to rubbish the claims.

The online world is more empowering probably because one doesn’t need to belong to an organisation or have a professional degree to voice one’s opinion and be heard by millions of people around the globe. While the downside is hoaxes, vicious e-rumors and character assassination, the upside and advantages outnumber them. It is easier to cross-check claims, disprove falsehoods and create awareness about issues. While hoaxes usually have a negative connotation, Cox’s hoax page is probably the first hoax that made people ask questions and think.

You can find the 404-error page — now referred to as CIA error page and IE as Iraqi Explorer — at www.coxar.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk Click on the links in the webpage and you will be taken to an Amazon U.K. page that sells a book of existential poetry written by Donald Rumsfeld!

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