Keyword: Litigation

Reading the Blockchain Tea Leaves: Reconciling Telegram and Block.one

The juxtaposition of two recent SEC enforcement actions against token issuers may shed some light on the regulator’s evolving regulatory framework.

On October 11, 2019, the SEC won a motion for a temporary restraining order from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against Telegram Group Inc., the creator of Messenger, an encrypted messaging application, to halt its planned $1.7 billion “Gram” token distribution and follow-on sale. The SEC’s action, which alleged that the planned offering of Grams would violate the registration requirements of Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act of 1933, put a halt to a long-running development project and more than 18 months of continued interaction with the SEC.

The SEC’s stance against Telegram stands in stark contrast to its settlement on September 30, 2019, with Block.one, the creator of the EOSIO blockchain protocol. Block.one conducted a year-long initial coin offering that raised a record $4 billion in 2017 and 2018. Block.one’s ICO utilized a dual-token structure: over the course of the ICO, Block.one sold 900 million digital assets (“ERC 20 tokens”) to purchasers. These tokens were freely transferable while the ICO was ongoing. At the end of the ICO, the ERC-20 tokens became nontransferable and, upon the subsequent launch of the EOSIO blockchain, holders of the ERC-20 tokens were entitled to receive the native EOS token. Block.one settled the SEC’s claims against it by agreeing to pay a monetary penalty of $24 million. Unlike what we have seen in similar settlements, the SEC did not require rescission of the sale of the ERC-20 tokens, which were designated securities, or the EOS tokens, which received no mention in the cease-and-desist order. The EOSIO blockchain protocol remains live, and EOS tokens remain in circulation. The SEC also explicitly granted a “bad actor” waiver under Regulation D permitting the Company to continue fundraising and capital formation in the United States.

The SEC’s seemingly distinct approaches to Block.one’s and Telegram’s offerings have left the industry scratching its collective head. What is most odd is the SEC’s decision in the case of Telegram to seek emergency relief, a remedy typically reserved for ongoing frauds, which is not alleged here. In lieu of a public explanation from the SEC, reviewing the differences between the two offerings may be the only way to extract guidance from these actions. There is, however, no way of knowing which differences actually had an impact on the results. Nevertheless, below we discuss some of the differences.

Token Use Case

The SEC’s disparate treatment of Telegram and Block.one may come down to the differences in the nature, purpose and design of their technologies. The SEC has given indications (although not official guidance) that a critical part of the Howey analysis as to whether a token is a security is if purchasers are dependent on a centralized group of people to drive its value; if the developer community of a blockchain technology is decentralized enough, the token may fall outside of Howey.

The Gram may have always been doomed to fail this test because of the planned integration with Messenger, which is a proprietary product. The integration with Messenger was supposed to be a significant driver of the Gram’s value, and the development of Messenger is entirely dependent on Telegram.

In contrast, the EOS tokens and the EOSIO blockchain protocol are designed and meant to power a smart contract platform on top of which other developers may build. Perhaps Block.one’s intention to build a decentralized platform resembling Ether helped it find favor with the SEC.

Manner of Token Sale

Telegram sold “Gram Purchase Agreements” to sophisticated purchasers that promised Grams upon the launch of Telegram’s TON blockchain. No Grams were to be distributed until the launch of the blockchain, presumably because Telegram held the view that if Grams were not distributed until the blockchain was live it might escape the “efforts of others” Howey prong. Clearly, this wasn’t enough to satisfy the SEC.

Block.one’s dual-token structure – issuing ERC-20 tokens first, which entitled holders to EOS tokens once the native EOSIO platform launched – gave the SEC the opportunity to take action against the ERC-20 tokens and remain silent on EOS. It is questionable whether this move is justified by strict legal analysis: the ERC-20 tokens were sold in conjunction with “Token Purchase Agreements” that made it clear to purchasers they were being sold the right to receive EOS tokens. Furthermore, until EOSIO launched, the future value of those EOS tokens was dependent on Block.one. Given the manner of sale, it is unclear why EOS received the apparent favorable treatment over Grams.

Participants in Sale and Availability of Tokens on Secondary Markets

In their official documents, the SEC presented two distinctly different attitudes towards the availability of a token on secondary markets accessible to U.S. persons. For Telegram, such availability justified the SEC in shutting down its entire operation, while for Block.one the availability only provoked a slight admonition, without enjoining the offering.

Block.one made some efforts to prevent U.S. customers from participating in the ICO: it blocked U.S.-based IP addresses and required purchasers to sign a contract that included a provision stating that any purchase by a U.S. person rendered the contract null and void. However, despite those measures, U.S. persons still succeeded in participating in the ICO; moreover, Block.one made efforts that could be viewed as conditioning the U.S. market, including participating in blockchain conferences and advertising EOSIO on a billboard in Times Square. Notably, too, the ERC-20 tokens were widely traded and available for purchase by U.S. persons on secondary markets. Block.one took no steps to prevent this.

In contrast, the fact that Telegram’s tokens would be available to U.S. purchasers on secondary markets drove the SEC’s argument that a TRO and preliminary injunction were necessary, regardless of the fact that Telegram limited the sale of Gram purchase agreements to sophisticated investors and that upon the distribution of Grams and the sale to the public the Telegram network would be fully functional.

Takeaways

The SEC’s distinctly different treatment of Telegram and Block.one provides insight into the SEC’s perspective on what sorts of tokens are securities, and which are not. It appears that the Gram’s integration into Telegram’s proprietary product – and therefore its dependence on Telegram – was critical to the SEC’s analysis. The analogous nature of EOS to Ether probably led to it not being designated a security. However, both ICOs were deemed in violation of securities laws, so neither should serve as a safe harbor for others. Furthermore, there is still no clear legal path to launching a token like EOS.

NY AG Accuses Bitfinex and Tether of Covering Up $851 Million Loss in Investor Funds

On April 25, 2019, New York’s Attorney General secured a preliminary injunction against Bitfinex, a cryptocurrency trading platform, and Tether, the company behind tether (USDT), one of the world’s most popular cryptocurrencies. In papers filed with the court last Wednesday, the state AG accused the companies of misleading investors about their financial well-being while using Tether’s bank account to prop up Bitfinex with $700 million in undisclosed loans. The injunction requires Bitfinex and Tether to temporarily cease drawing down Tether’s cash reserves and to turn over detailed information about their finances and client accounts to the state AG as it investigates them for financial fraud.

As we have discussed in previous blog posts, courts and regulators have determined that some virtual currencies are securities or commodities that are subject to state and federal laws and regulations. Last week’s developments serve as a reminder to cryptocurrency exchanges and token distributors alike that they may be subject to the laws and regulations of any jurisdiction in which they operate. In this case, although Bitfinex purportedly no longer permits U.S. traders to use its platform and is not a licensed exchange in New York, the state AG’s office argued that it and Tether are subject to New York law because some New York residents still use the platform, just as some New York residents own USDT. The companies’ connections to New York subject them to scrutiny under the Martin Act, New York’s powerful “blue sky” securities law that gives the state AG the authority to investigate and prosecute securities fraud regardless of fraudulent intent.

In papers submitted to the court, New York’s AG alleged that Bitfinex dipped into Tether’s cash holdings to prop itself up after $851 million was seized from one of its bank accounts. Bitfinex had deposited the cash with an entity called Crypto Capital Corp., who was engaged by Bitfinex to process its clients’ withdrawals. In late 2018, Crypto Capital reported to Bitfinex that it could no longer process withdrawals or return Bitfinex’s funds to it because they had been seized by authorities in Portugal, Poland, and the U.S. To cover up the loss, Bitfinex allegedly caused Tether to extend it a $900 million line of credit, of which Bitfinex has accessed approximately $700 million. Neither Bitfinex nor Tether publicly disclosed these transactions. The state AG alleges that Bitfinex was able to borrow the funds from Tether because the two companies are operated by the same individuals and share the same parent company.

The New York AG has accused Bitfinex and Tether of misleading investors about the security of their investments and of engaging in self-dealing by causing Tether to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to Bitfinex, taking on enormous amounts of risk without receiving anything of value in return. Tether has long represented that it holds one U.S. dollar in reserve for each of the 2.6 billion outstanding USDT, and that holders of USDT can redeem them at any time for U.S. dollars at a rate of one USDT to one U.S. dollar. Although Tether has recently disclosed that outstanding USDT may be backed by “other assets and receivables” in addition to U.S. dollars, the state AG is investigating, among other questions, whether Tether’s transactions with Bitfinex have rendered Tether’s public statements misleading. The New York AG has also accused the companies of misleading state investigators by purporting to cooperate in the AG’s investigation while secretly transferring funds from Tether to Bitfinex.

Bitfinex responded on Friday with a forcefully worded denial of the allegations brought against it and Tether and reiterated that the companies “are financially strong – full stop.”

Although the New York AG has stated that it does not want its investigation to harm Tether investors or Bitfinex clients, it’s possible that information revealed during the investigation could affect confidence in the companies or in cryptocurrency markets generally. Bitcoin’s price fell seven percent immediately following the announcement of the AG’s investigation on Thursday, perhaps providing a window into the volatility that will come if Bitfinex’s assurances that it and Tether are financially sound are found to be misleading.

Appellate Court – Selling Bitcoin in Florida Requires a Money Services Business License

Following a recent opinion by a Florida appellate court, virtual currency dealers who do business in, from, or into Florida – even individuals in the business of selling their own virtual currency for cash – may be required to obtain a “money services business” license from Florida’s Office of Financial Regulation and maintain costly anti-money laundering programs in accordance with Florida and federal law or face criminal penalties.

On January 30, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal reinstated criminal charges against Florida resident Michell Espinoza for money laundering and “unlawfully engaging in the business of a money transmitter and/or payment instrument seller without being registered with the State of Florida.” State v. Espinoza, No. 3D16-1860, slip op. (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. Jan. 30, 2019). The trial court had previously dismissed the charges against Espinoza, agreeing with his argument that selling Bitcoin does not qualify as “money transmitting” under Florida law because Bitcoin is not “money,” among other reasons. State v. Espinoza, No. F14-2923 (Fl. Cir. Ct. July 22, 2016). The appellate court disagreed and determined that even a person in the business of selling his own Bitcoin for cash is a “money transmitter” and “payment instrument seller” under Florida law and is therefore required to be licensed as a “money services business.”

The charges against Espinoza stem from a sting operation in 2013, in which undercover detectives contacted Espinoza through a Bitcoin exchange site, LocalBitcoins.com. Espinoza posted on that site that he would sell Bitcoins for cash through in-person transactions. Espinoza was not licensed or registered as a “money services business” with Florida or federal regulators. An undercover detective met Espinoza several times and paid him a total of $1500 cash for Bitcoin, earning Espinoza a profit. During those transactions, the undercover detective allegedly made clear his desire to remain anonymous and said he was involved in illicit activity. For example, the undercover detective allegedly told Espinoza that he needed the Bitcoin to buy stolen credit card numbers from Russians.

The Florida appellate court’s determination that Bitcoins are “monetary value” and “payment instruments” under Florida law fits within a line of cases finding that Bitcoin qualifies as “money” for the purposes of money laundering and anti-money laundering laws. For example, in 2014 Judge Rakoff, a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, found that Bitcoin clearly qualifies as “money” or “funds” for the purposes of the federal money transmitter statute because “Bitcoin can be easily purchased in exchange for ordinary currency, acts as a denominator of value and is used to conduct financial transactions.” United States v. Faiella, 39 F. Supp. 3d 544, 545 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (citing SEC v. Shavers, 2013 WL 4028182, at *2 (E.D. Tex. Aug. 6, 2013)). Some states have also codified virtual currency into their anti-money laundering regulations. For example, after the trial court determined that Bitcoin was not a “monetary instrument” that could be laundered under Florida’s money laundering statute, the Florida legislature amended the statutory definition of “monetary instruments” to explicitly include the term “virtual currency.” Fla. Stat. § 896.101(2)(f) (2017). Other states, however, have taken a different approach. Pennsylvania’s Department of Banking and Securities (“DoBS”), for example, recently published guidance that virtual currency, including Bitcoin, is not considered money under Pennsylvania law. “Money Transmitter Act Guidance for Virtual Currency Businesses,” Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities (Jan. 23, 2019).

The Florida appellate court found that Espinoza was operating as a “money transmitter” and therefore was a “money services business,” simply by engaging in the business of selling his own Bitcoin for cash and not otherwise acting as a middleman between parties. The trial court had applied the more common and narrow understanding that a “money transmitter” operates “like a middleman in a financial transaction, much like how Western Union accepts money from person A, and at the direction of person A, transmits it to person or entity B,” as explained by the appellate court.

To reach its conclusion, the Florida appellate court looked to the text of Florida’s money services business statute – which the court believes is critically different from federal regulations. Under both federal and Florida state law, a “money services business” is defined to include a “money transmitter.” Compare 31 C.F.R. § 1010.100(ff) with Fla. Stat. § 560.103(22). According to the Florida appellate court, the federal definition of “money transmitter” includes a third-party requirement. Under federal regulations, a “money transmitter” means a person engaged in the “acceptance of currency, funds or other value that substitutes currency from one person and the transmission of currency, funds, or other value that substitutes for currency to another location or person by any means.” 31 C.F.R. § 1010.100(ff)(5(i)(A) (emphasis added). In comparison, the Florida statute defines a “money transmitter” as an entity “which receives currency, monetary value, or payment instruments for the purpose of transmitting the same by any means.” Fla. Stat. § 560.103(23). The Florida appellate court found that, in contrast to the federal regulations, the Florida statute’s “plain language clearly contains no third party transmission requirement in order for an individual’s conduct to fall under the ‘money transmitter’ definition” and, as such “decline[d] to add any third party or ‘middleman’ requirement.”

The appellate court’s interpretation of the text of Florida’s statute is disputable. From a statutory interpretation perspective, the middleman requirement is arguably inherent in the plain meaning of the word “transmit,” which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to send or convey from one person or place to another.” (Notably, Pennsylvania’s DoBS recently issued guidance interpreting the word “transmitting” in a comparable state statute to include a third-party requirement. See “Money Transmitter Act Guidance for Virtual Currency Businesses,” Pennsylvania DoBS (Jan. 23, 2019) (interpreting statute that “[n]o person shall engage in the business of transmitting money by means of a transmittal instrument for a fee or other consideration with or on behalf of an individual without first having obtained a license from the [DoBS]” to impose a third-party requirement).) It would, therefore, be reasonable to interpret Florida’s statute as consistent with federal regulations. Moreover, the Florida appellate court’s interpretation of the statute could have broad and troubling consequences. Although dicta in the Florida appellate court’s decision make it seem like the court is making a distinction between “merely selling [one’s] own personal bitcoins” and “marketing a business,” the court’s statutory interpretation leaves open the possibility that the mere act of selling one’s own property – without registering as a “money services business” – could be a crime.

While we watch to see whether Espinoza will appeal this decision to the Florida Supreme Court, virtual currency dealers should be aware that selling virtual currency in, from or into Florida may require a money services business license and the maintenance of an anti-money laundering program.

Dragged to the U.S. Courts (Part 3): The Importance of a Valid Forum-Selection Clause

We have said it in both part 1 and part 2 of this series: for a U.S. court to exercise its powers over a foreign defendant, it must have personal jurisdiction. But even if the court finds that it has jurisdiction, the defendant can request the court to transfer the case to an alternative forum, even to a different country, under the common law doctrine forum non conveniens. In In re Tezos Securities Litigation, the Swiss defendant Tezos Foundation failed in its attempt to transfer the action to Switzerland because of the operation of its forum-selection clause. In this final part of our series discussing jurisdictional questions for blockchain and cryptocurrency companies, we address two crucial factors that non-U.S. companies should consider when crafting a forum-selection clause.

Once a defendant moves to transfer the case by implicating forum non conveniens, the court will undertake a fact-intensive balancing of private and public factors, such as the location of witnesses and evidence, the enforceability of any judgment, avoidance of unnecessary conflicts of law, and administrative congestion. Generally, courts give great deference to the plaintiff’s choice of forum and transfer the case only if the balance of factors “strongly favors” the defendant. But this analysis changes when the parties have agreed to a valid forum-selection clause. As many courts have noted, and Judge Seeborg repeated in In re Tezos, “Because a valid forum-selection clause is bargained for by the parties and embodies their expectations as to where disputes will be solved, it should be given controlling weight in all but the most exceptional cases.”

In the Tezos case, the Swiss defendant argued that there were no exceptional circumstances preventing the court from giving controlling weight to its forum-selection clause, which stated that “[t]he applicable law is Swiss law [and] any dispute . . . shall be exclusively and finally settled in the courts of Zug, Switzerland.” This forum non conveniens motion, however, failed because the court found that the plaintiff had not been put on notice of the forum-selection clause and thus could not have consented to it.

While forum selection is a complex subject, the Tezos decision demonstrates one necessary requirement for any binding forum-selection clause, dispute-resolution clause, or indeed even contract – consent. Below are two factors from In re Tezos and other cases relating to online businesses that blockchain and cryptocurrency companies should consider if they want their forum-selection clauses to bind their website users:

  1. Choose clickwrap over browsewrap: A clickwrap or clickthrough agreement requires the user to engage with the website, usually by checking an “I agree” or “I accept” box. A browsewrap agreement attempts to bind users of the website by inferring assent to the terms and conditions. Generally, it is easier to prove notice and consent where a clickwrap agreement has been used, since the user is required to take affirmative action to show agreement to the terms and conditions. A browsewrap agreement may also bind the user, but this requires either (i) a showing that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of the agreement, or (ii) the website putting a reasonably prudent user on “inquiry notice” of the terms. The Contribution Terms of the Tezos ICO did not include a clickwrap agreement for the forum-selection clause. And, as discussed next, the browsewrap agreement itself was poorly executed.
  2. When using a browsewrap agreement, make the forum-selection clause visible: The question of whether a user has notice of the terms is likely to depend on the design and content of the website. If a link to a website’s terms of use (which includes the forum-selection clause) is “buried at the bottom of the page or tucked away in obscure corners of the website where users are unlikely to see it,” the courts are likely to refuse to enforce the browsewrap agreement (see Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171 (9th Cir. 2014)). Similarly, some courts have found that browsewrap agreements were not enforceable where the link to the terms and conditions was not visible without scrolling down to the bottom of the page, which was not necessary to do to complete the purchase (see Specht v. Netscape Commun’ns Corp, 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002)).

A fundamental problem with the Tezos ICO Contribution agreement was that it did not actually include the forum-selection clause but instead had a single sentence, on page ten of the twenty-page agreement, directing users to “refer to the legal document that will be issued by the Foundation for more details.” Adding to the problems, the court noted that the relevant website did not even hyperlink to this legal contract with the forum-selection clause. Finally, Judge Seeborg added that even if Tezos Foundation had added hyperlinks and some language indicating a user’s “purported agreement,” the browsewrap agreement might still be held unenforceable, particularly against individual consumers.

After finding that the terms of the ICO did not provide sufficient notice that the plaintiff had agreed to Switzerland as the forum, the court applied the traditional forum non conveniens analysis and dismissed the transfer motion. Judge Seeborg added, however, that if discovery later shows that the plaintiff was, in fact, aware of the forum-selection clause, then he may consider dismissal or transfer of the case to the courts of Switzerland.

Dragged to the U.S. Courts (Part 2): Avoiding Personal Jurisdiction as a Non-U.S. Blockchain Company

Without personal jurisdiction over a defendant, a court cannot exercise its powers. And when it comes to non-U.S. companies who want to avoid being dragged to court in the U.S., Alibaba Group Holdings Limited v. Alibabacoin Foundation, No. 18-CV-2897 (S.D.N.Y.) and In re Tezos Securities Litigation, No. 17-CV-06779-RS (N.D. Cal.) show that the traditional jurisdictional analysis applies to blockchain technologies as much as to traditional companies. To further minimize the risks of U.S. litigation, blockchain-related companies should also heed the lessons derived from case law related to online businesses – other creatures of the modern age. This is the second part of our series discussing jurisdictional questions for blockchain and cryptocurrency companies. The first part, which can be read here, focused on how the location of the blockchain nodes may affect the court’s analysis.

U.S. courts can exercise personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant who has either a continuous and systematic presence in the state (general jurisdiction) or “minimum contacts” with the state such that the exercise of jurisdiction “does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” (specific jurisdiction). “General” or “all purpose” jurisdiction permits a court to hear all claims against the defendant, while “specific” or “case-linked” jurisdiction permits only those claims which stem from the defendant’s forum-related contacts (see Walden v. Fiore, 571 U.S. 277 (2014)). While some states have adopted additional long-arm statutes, the federal due process requirements must always be satisfied.

Most courts analyze the “minimum contacts” for specific jurisdiction in a three-part inquiry: (1) Does the claim arise out of the defendants’ forum-related contacts? (2) Did the defendant purposefully avail itself of the forum’s laws? and (3) Is exercising jurisdiction reasonable? We will now look at the second prong of the test and the steps that non-U.S. companies setting up operations can take to avoid purposeful availment.

In both Alibabacoin and In Re Tezos, the courts found that a foreign blockchain company with few physical contacts with the United States had purposefully availed itself of the U.S. laws. These cases conform with the principles found in case law related to online businesses. Following is a list of the relevant factors that courts have found showing purposeful availment by Belarus and Dubai defendants in Alibabacoin, by a Swiss defendant in In Re Tezos, and by various other online companies in other cases:

  1. An interactive website accessible in the U.S.: The courts in both Alibabacoin and Tezos agreed that an interactive website available in the U.S., alone, is not sufficient for personal jurisdiction. But the more functional the website, the more likely a court is to find personal jurisdiction (with additional factors present). For example, in Alibabacoin, the court found it relevant that the defendants’ website allowed a user to (1) register a cryptocurrency wallet, (2) access and download content about the Alibabacoin cryptocurrency and white paper, and (3) interact and contact sales representatives with questions.
  2. Using U.S. servers: If the claims brought against a foreign defendant stem from its online activity, the location of the servers can be relevant. In the Tezos case, the court found that the Swiss defendant’s use of Arizona servers was relevant to the securities law claims and personal jurisdiction (although insufficient on its own to establish jurisdiction). And in Alibabacoin, a trademark case, the court stated that “whether Alibabacoin’s Wallet website is actually hosted on servers physically located in New York may also be relevant to the personal jurisdiction inquiry.”
  3. Blocking IP address or providing notice to U.S. viewers: A very recent U.S. appellate court case noted that to avoid purposeful availment of U.S. laws, online businesses should consider blocking U.S. IP addresses (Plixer International, Inc. v Scrutinizer GmbH, 2018 WL 4357137 (1st Cir. 2018)). Even if the technical solution does not keep out all U.S. visitors, the Plixer court stated that the blocking attempt shows intent to avoid U.S. customers and is thus relevant to the jurisdictional analysis. If blocking is too aggressive a business strategy, foreign companies can try to avoid jurisdiction by adding notices on the website that their services or products are not available and intended to be used in the U.S.
  4. Marketing and advertising in the U.S.: Avoiding U.S.-specific media and U.S.-specific discussions can further improve a company’s chances in the jurisdictional analysis. In the Tezos case, the court found that the Swiss defendant using a “de facto U.S. marketing arm” and mostly marketing the ICO in the U.S. showed purposeful availment. The same was illustrated in the Alibabacoin case by the finding that over one thousand New Yorkers visited the defendants’ website and at least one New York resident purchased the tokens.
  5. Employees or agents working in the U.S.: If possible, non-U.S. companies should avoid moving their employees to the U.S., hiring in the U.S., or using U.S. agents. This was an important issue in the Tezos case: the court noted that the defendant “kept at least one employee or agent in the United States,” and this was “responsive” to the purposeful availment test.
  6. Working with U.S. service providers: Although for any contacts in question to create jurisdiction, they must give rise to the claims at issue (step 1 in the “minimum contacts” test), limiting reliance on contacts with U.S. service providers outright can lower the jurisdictional risk. In In re Tezos, the Swiss defendant’s use of a “de facto marketing arm in the U.S.” was an important factor in the court’s analysis. In Alibabacoin, the non-U.S. defendant had dealings with a U.S. company (Digital Ocean), which hosted the Alibabacoin website. But, in contrast to Tezos, because the plaintiff had not showed that Digital Ocean had an “active role” in administering the website or that Digital Ocean’s servers were hosted in New York, the court did not rely on this relationship as a basis for finding jurisdiction. Moreover, contacts with U.S. businesses can overlap with the previous point on marketing. For example, if a company used Google Ad Words to target areas of the U.S., it might increase the chances of the courts finding jurisdiction.
  7. Voluntary sales to the U.S.: Depending on the facts, claims and the state’s long-arm statute, even a few intentional sales into the U.S. may prove purposeful availment. For example, in Alibabacoin, the court highlighted that the plaintiff “presented evidence that at least one New York resident ha[d] purchased Alibabacoin on three occasions.” And in In Re Tezos, the court stated that a “significant portion” of the 30,000 ICO contributors were in the U.S. Similarly, after analyzing the federal case law on this issue, the Plixer court held that a German cloud computing company which “voluntarily service[d] the U.S. market” and made around $200,000 should have “reasonably anticipated being haled into U.S. court.” That court also noted that the Oregon Supreme Court had found jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant that had sold over 1000 battery chargers totalling about $30,000 (Willemsen v. Invacare Corp., 352 Or. 191 (2012) (en banc)), while a district court in New Jersey did not exercise specific jurisdiction over a defendant who had made fewer than 10 in-state sales totalling $3,383 (Oticon, Inc. v. Sebotek Hearing Sys., LLC, 865 F.Supp.2d 501 (D. N.J. 2011)). Accordingly, voluntary and intentional sales to the U.S. should not be made and, if sales occur, blocking U.S. website visitors, or at least providing clear notice, becomes crucial.

When analyzing specific personal jurisdiction, the courts generally examine these factors together, and it is difficult to rank them in order of importance. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected in the coming years to decide on when online contacts are sufficient to create specific personal jurisdiction. Until then, In Re Tezos, Alibabacoin, and case law on online businesses serve as good guidance for non-U.S. blockchain companies.

Dragged to the U.S. Courts (Part 1): Jurisdiction and the Location of Blockchain Nodes

Following the 2017 ICO boom and the more recent declines in cryptocurrency prices, blockchain-related litigation has substantially increased. U.S. courts have seen most of that action: American regulatory agencies have been more aggressive than their foreign counterparts (the SEC alone has over 200 open investigations), and private parties regularly bring individual suits and class actions. Altogether, close to 100 cases have been filed.

In two recent cases, the courts—for the first time—ruled on jurisdictional questions related to foreign companies by considering the technical aspects of blockchain technology. The opinions in In Re Tezos Securities Litigation and Alibaba Group v. Alibabacoin Foundation illustrate the following three points:

  1. The physical location of the verifying nodes can affect the court’s jurisdictional analysis.
  2. On personal jurisdiction, existing case law related to foreign online businesses serves as useful guidance for blockchain companies seeking to avoid U.S. litigation.
  3. Strategic dispute resolution and forum selection clauses can save the day.

Considering the importance of these issues for avoiding U.S. litigation and the space required to provide enough legal background to meaningfully discuss them, each issue will be addressed in a separate On the Chain post. Today we will address the first point: location of the nodes (the individual devices part of the larger data structure maintaining a copy of the blockchain and, in some cases, processing transactions).

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The physical location of the verifying nodes can affect the court’s jurisdictional analysis

When a foreign defendant is sued in a U.S. court, the court must determine that the U.S. laws in question can be fairly applied and the court has personal jurisdiction over the foreign party. While well-developed legal principles continue to govern the analysis, when a party is a company that uses blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, its reliance on multiple nodes that are physically located across the world raises unique jurisdictional questions. The following two cases tackle this issue.

In re Tezos Securities Litigation, No. 17-CV-06779-RS (N.D. Cal. Aug. 7, 2018)

In In re Tezos, Judge Seeborg addressed whether U.S. securities laws apply extraterritorially to a foreign company that sold tokens to U.S. residents in an ICO. As the readers are probably aware, the Tezos ICO was one of the largest to date, raising over $230 million in July 2017. Tezos Foundation, a Swiss defendant, argued that the sale of the security was not a “domestic transaction” and therefore the Exchange Act did not apply. The Court then posed the question, “where does an unregistered security, purchased on the internet, and recorded ‘on the blockchain,’ actually take place?”

Although the Contribution Terms of the Tezos ICO stated that Alderney (an English Channel Island) was the “legal site” of the transactions and the place where the “contribution software” resided, the Court held that the transaction occurred in the U.S. for the following reasons: (1) the plaintiff participated in the ICO from the U.S. (paying in Ether), (2) payment was made through interactive website that was hosted on an Arizona server, (3) the website was primarily run by an American co-defendant located in California, and (4) plaintiff’s contribution of Ether to the ICO “became irrevocable only after it was validated by a network of global ‘nodes’ clustered more densely in the United States than in any other country.”

Alibaba Group Holdings Limited v. Alibabacoin Foundation, No. 18-CV-2897 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 22, 2018)

But not all judges give this much weight to the location of the nodes. In Alibaba v. Alibabacoin, Judge Oetken also addressed questions of jurisdiction and the location of blockchain nodes. In Alibabacoin, a trademark case, the Dubai- and Belarus-based defendant (Alibabacoin) argued that the Court lacked personal jurisdiction over it because its ICO sales did not occur in the U.S., since the transactions “consist of ledger entries made in Minsk, Belarus, following observation of changes in ‘blockchain data’ outside the United States.”

In asserting U.S. jurisdiction, Judge Oetken did not buy this argument. The Court held that the place where the transaction is put on the ledger is not relevant, comparing this situation to an everyday online purchase: “it would constrain common usage to say that the transaction occurs at the potentially remote location of the servers that process the buyer’s banking activities and not at location where the buyer clicks the button that commits her to the terms of sale.” The Court concluded that the plaintiff had demonstrated with reasonable probability that personal jurisdiction over Alibabacoin existed, based on other factors, which will be addressed in the next post.

In the future, the courts are likely to continue to focus on blockchain data structure

In Re Tezos appears to be the first time the courts have considered the location of the nodes to be relevant for jurisdictional analysis. But the cases also show that the courts are only beginning to wrestle with this issue.  Jurisdictional analysis will always depend on individual facts and the claims asserted. For example, when focusing only on the fourth factor of Judge Seeborg’s analysis (the location of the nodes), all projects using ERC-20 tokens, which depend on the same cluster of Ethereum nodes, could be considered to operate to some extent in the U.S. Furthermore, the importance of the nodes in jurisdictional analyses is likely to rise because the cases currently in courts are mostly ICO-related. That is, most of the ongoing litigation does not stem from the operation of the blockchain technology but is related to fraud, trademark disputes, and failures to register with various regulatory agencies.

Soon when more blockchain projects become operational and disputes arise in relation to such issues as on-chain transactions, hacking, security failures, and disputes over the governing of the networks, the importance of the data structure of these networks will increase. As a result, the influence of nodes as a factor in the courts’ analyses is also expected to increase, and many foreign blockchain companies that are avoiding the U.S. may, nevertheless, be dragged to U.S. courts.

As will be discussed in the upcoming posts, there are steps a company can take to avoid litigating in U.S. courts, including the set-up of its operations, drafting of its contracts with customers and partners, and litigation strategies pursued in court.