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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A federal judge's decisions Monday tossed out antitrust lawsuits against Facebook — and threw cold water on the heated campaign to brand Big Tech's leading companies as illegal monopolists.

Why it matters: The rulings show just how tough it will be for regulators at the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to make their charges of tech malfeasance stick.

Yes, but: It could also strengthen the hand of lawmakers who argue that today's outdated antitrust laws lack the teeth to restrain the power wielded by Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.

Driving the news: Judge James Boasberg of the Federal District Court in D.C. sent the Federal Trade Commission back to the drawing board to show exactly how Facebook has a monopoly in the market for "personal social networking services."

  • The FTC's suit, filed in December, is "legally insufficient," Boasberg wrote: "It is almost as if the agency expects the court to simply nod to the conventional wisdom that Facebook is a monopolist."
  • He also threw out a parallel lawsuit by a coalition of state attorneys general, whose objections to Facebook's acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp, he ruled, came nearly a decade too late.

Facebook investors received the news with glee, sending its stock up nearly 5% and driving the company's market cap over $1 trillion for the first time.

The big picture: The rulings came at a moment of high hopes for tech critics.

  • For five years, a coalition of activists, lawmakers and scholars has castigated the giant tech companies over their market dominance, privacy and data policies, and failure to control the spread of online misinformation.
  • Key Biden administration appointees — including Tim Wu at the White House and new FTC chair Lina Khan — have come from this camp.
  • Just days ago, the House Judiciary Committee approved a package of a half-dozen new bills aimed at redefining antitrust rules to cover giant tech platforms.

Advocates of stronger tech regulation argue that these proposals will give regulators tough new tools to restrain the industry's power.

But even if they became law — a challenging prospect in the face of a sclerotic Senate — they would face inevitable judicial challenges on constitutional and other grounds.

Between the lines: Antitrust prosecutions remain dauntingly complex and forbiddingly difficult to clinch.

  • Under current law, you have to define a market, show that a company has a monopoly in that market, and then prove that the company has abused its monopoly.
  • You can change the rules of the game, as the House Judiciary proposals aim to, but any law still needs to devise coherent tests for corporate misbehavior that courts can apply.

Supporters of the new House bills say they will do just that. But the new laws are narrowly tailored to target a handful of companies and practices. They could be out of date before the appeals process has run its course.

Go deeper

Sep 25, 2021 - World

Neo-Nazi groups thrive online through merchandise and ticket sales

Photo: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Multiple groups of neo-Nazi members are thriving on social media platforms despite those companies' commitment to fighting extremism, the Associated Press reports.

Why it matters: Dozens of far-right groups use their Facebook, YouTube and Instagram platforms to spread their ideology, draw in recruits and generate millions in sales through events and merchandise.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
25 mins ago - World

Merkel's departure could bring influx of private investment

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chairman and candidate for the federal elections, Armin Laschet, in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Sept. 26. Photo: Clemens Bilan - Pool/Getty Images

Angela Merkel's departure from German government may result in a massive influx of private investment.

Driving the news: The center-left Social Democratic Party, led by chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz, clinched a narrow victory in Germany's federal elections. It now will seek to form a coalition government by year-end with the Greens and the Free Democrats.

Instagram pauses development of platform for kids

Photo: Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Instagram announced Monday that it is pausing its plans to develop a version of its platform for children under 13.

Why it matters: Facebook has received backlash since the Wall Street Journal published a report that showed the company knew its Instagram app is harmful for teenagers.