Rick Santorum is the latest politician to promise to ban online porn, but is it possible? When politicians say they want to ban porn, it's sort of like they've claimed they can fly: most reporters simply point out the promise, as if the absurdity were self-evident. That's how ABC News reported it in July when Michele Bachmann signed a pledge that included an anti-porn plank.

In the case of Rick Santorum, a statement went up on his campaign site on Wednesday pledging a grand crackdown on the "distribution of hardcore (obscene) pornography on the Internet, on cable/satellite TV, on hotel/motel TV, in retail shops and through the mail or by common carrier." 

The Daily Caller's Steven Nelson spoke to legal experts on exactly how Santorum would go about achieving that. “If the government wanted to aggressively move against Internet pornography, it could do so,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh told Nelson. Lots of online porn meets community standards of obscenity, and so “It wouldn’t be that difficult to close down a lot of the relatively visible websites that are used for the distribution of pornography, if they’re in the United States." But that would leave plenty of offshore porn sites which Volokh said would require “a mandatory filter set up by the government or by the service." Or, as Nelson, suggests, "the government could also prosecute individual citizens who view porn, and already has the legal authority to do it." So, yes, a simple plan to get rid of porn.

Many fret that the internet makes it so much easier to access porn and how culture has been "pornified." But it's also a lot easier to censor internet porn. In 2008, Hamas blocked porno sites in the Gaza Strip. The same year, Singapore banned YouPorn and RedTube. Michigan's legislature is trying to block porn from the state's prisons. Where there's a will -- and a little authoritarianism -- there's a way. 

But history shows there's usually not much will, once the election is over. In 2008, the ABA Journal's Jason Krause wrote that the Bush administration's vow to fight online porn had faded with a whimper. Patrick A. Trueman, an anti-porn activist and former George H.W. Bush administration official, complained bitterly that George W. Bush's term was a huge letdown. He and other activists met with Bush attorney general John Ashcroft. “We asked that he appoint a vigorous prosecutor," Trueman said, "and he promised to do so... Instead, they appointed Drew Oosterbaan, who said he would go after the worst child porn, but let the adult content go.” The anti-porn crowd kept trying. Morality in Media got a grant from Congress in 2005 to setup a website where citizens could report obscene websites. The group sent the most offensive ones to the Justice Department, but it didn't followup on any of them. Bush Attorney General Alberto "Gonzales talked a good game," Trueman told Krause, “but there’s been no follow-through.”

 

If the sites can't be shut down, there's the harassment strategy. Some porn makers are threatening to leave Los Angeles because the city has instituted a condom requirement. In the mid-2000s, the FBI occasionally made surprise visits to porn studios to check whether they were had the required documentation that all the actors were legal adults. But, L.A. is still the capital of America's pornography industry. 

Santorum is not alone in his dreams of a porn-free world, of course. Steve Jobs once mused about "freedom from porn" with Gawker's Ryan Tate in a late-night drunken (for Tate at least) email exchange. Jobs was talking about Apple's policy of keeping porn out of its official App Store for the iPhone. And, of course, we know as a result that no one uses the iPhone for pornography.