Hatch, R-Utah, pressed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week to prosecute the makers and distributors of more ubiquitous hard-core images, which account for a major percentage of what is available online and elsewhere.

"There has been a pattern at the Department of Justice to prosecute only the most extreme obscene materials. This particular type of material may virtually guarantee a conviction but it is not the most widely produced and consumed and therefore its prosecution may have very little impact on the obscenity industry," Hatch told Holder during a Justice Committee hearing Wednesday.

This is far from the first time Hatch has prodded an attorney general to go after porn producers, having been frustrated by the lack of action during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Hatch told Holder that for years the Justice Department has taken "a misguided and narrow approach to law enforcement in this area."

Holder seemed to stick to the status quo in his response, saying the department focuses on child obscenity cases prosecuted by career staff, not political appointees.

"We will certainly enforce the laws with the limited resources that we have and go after those cases that I think -- as we always do -- have the potential for the greatest harm," Holder said.

Hatch believes federal prosecutors with the help of the FBI could target a high percentage of the pornography out there, getting convictions based on community standards in most parts of the country.

What is acceptable and now readily accessible has changed in recent years, said Jerry Mooney, an attorney based in Utah and Los Angeles who has fought the government on obscenity cases.

"People have been voting with their mouse on what they find to be acceptable material," he said.

Mooney also said federal law enforcement is rightfully focused on terrorism cases and major financial malfeasance.

"It seems like this is not the time to redirect resources back into that area when they need to be spent on things that are more important," he said.

Diane Duke, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, a group created by the adult entertainment industry, also made the case that pornography has become more acceptable over time.

"Prosecutors are less enthusiastic about prosecuting for obscenity because they realize that our society is becoming more supportive of adults rights to be adults and to access adult materials," she said.

Robert Peters from Morality in Media says federal agencies are to be commended for going after online sexual exploitation of children, but adds they "have for the most part turned a blind eye towards the explosion of hard-core adult pornography on the Internet and elsewhere."

The government hasn't aggressively targeted pornography since the administration of George H.W. Bush.

At the time, Patrick Trueman ran the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, he has since gone into legal practice building a case that pornography harms people. In a 2005 congressional hearing Trueman said he collected $24 million in fines and pushed cases that resulted in 50 convictions.

The Clinton administration changed priorities, telling the division to focus on child porn cases and despite public pronouncements that they would beef up prosecution cases, little changed under George W. Bush.

In 2005, Bush's Attorney General Alberto Gonzales created a new obscenity prosecution task force and named Brent Ward, a former U.S. Attorney for Utah, to head it up.

According to a 2008 American Bar Association article, the task force prosecuted only 10 cases in its first three years, a span that included a U.S. Attorney firing scandal, which resulted in some of Ward's e-mails entering public court records.

One e-mail, which Ward wrote 10 months after his appointment to the task force, said his team had only two cases with indictments and only one with the help of the FBI. "In light of this, the Task Force would have to be considered a failure so far."

Trueman says little has changed since then.

"Such enforcement is at a standstill at the department," he said Thursday, applauding Hatch's push for more prosecutions.

Ward, who still leads the obscenity task force, declined to comment.


When is porn legal and when is it obscene?

The legal test is known as the Miller standard and it says pornography is obscene when "taken as a whole, [it] appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value."

A jury members must find that the material in question is obscene by the standards of their community.