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Yes, but: It could also strengthen the hand of lawmakers who argue that today's outdated antitrust laws lack the teeth to restrain the power wielded by Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.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

Hope King, author of Closer
Oct 6, 2021 - Technology

Facebook's toughest week yet

Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate hearing on Tuesday. Photo: Jabin Botsford/Pool/Getty Images

Facebook’s resiliency is being tested — again — amid a new firestorm.

What's new: Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who shared thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents with regulators, lawmakers and the Wall Street Journal, testified in front of Congress on Tuesday.

4 takeaways from the Facebook whistleblower hearing

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appears before a Senate subcommittee on Oct. 5 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Matt McClain-Pool/Getty Images

Whistleblower Frances Haugen on Tuesday provided rare insight into Facebook's operations during her testimony before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection.

What you need to know: The former Facebook product manager sought to expose the social media giant's knowledge of harmful content circulating on its platform and underscored the company's lack of transparency — sparking outrage from both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.

Oct 5, 2021 - Podcasts

Facebook: How did we get here?

Facebook shares are down 15% from an all-time high on September 7th. That’s the biggest drop since the beginning of the pandemic. And yesterday, Facebook’s global outage may have prevented 54 billion Facebook messages from being sent and 3.75 billion fewer calling minutes on WhatsApp, according to marketing firm ABCD Agency.

Axios Re:Cap talks with Axios’ media reporter Sara Fischer who’s been reporting on this, and how Facebook got to this moment.