Keyword: enforcement action

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.

The SEC Can’t Keep Kik-ing the Crypto Can

The SEC’s Action

On June 4, 2019, the SEC sued Kik Interactive Inc. (“Kik”), a privately held Canadian company, in the Southern District of New York, alleging that Kik’s offer and sale of $100 million worth of Kin tokens in 2017 constituted the unregistered sale of securities in violation of section 5 of the Securities Act. In a nutshell, the SEC asserts that, although Kik filed a Form D exemption from registration for the offering, the Kin sale did not qualify for the exemption because the tokens were offered and sold to the general public, not exclusively to accredited investors.

Importance

This case could yield guidance from a court on whether and when tokens constitute securities, to substitute precedential law for the SEC’s pronouncements in settled enforcement actions and guidance issued by its Divisions. The SEC charges that Kin tokens are securities under the Howey test. As a result of Kik’s failure to register the tokens, the SEC alleges, investors did not receive the information from the company relevant for evaluating Kik’s claims about the potential of the investment, including current financial information, proposed use of investor proceeds, and the company’s budget. The Complaint emphasizes the reasonable expectations of “investors” in Kin that the value of their tokens would increase based upon Kik’s efforts, in terms that suggest that Kik’s statements about its projects lacked support and might even have been misleading. And although scienter is not a component of Section 5 charges, and the SEC did not charge fraud, the Complaint alleges that Kik knew or should have known that it was offering securities because, among other things: (1) the SEC had issued the DAO report that applies the Howey test before Kik began offering and selling the tokens; (2) a consultant warned Kik that Kin could be considered a security; and (3) the Ontario Securities Commission told the company that a sale to the public of Kin would constitute a securities offering. Kik’s primary defense is that Kin is not a security but a transaction currency or utility token akin to Bitcoin or Ether, which are not regulated as securities.

This appears to be the SEC’s first litigated federal action against an issuer solely for failure to register. Most registration cases have settled, and the ones that proceeded to litigation involved fraud claims in addition to failure to register. Since 2017 there have been over 300 ICO-related Form D offerings, so many companies may be directly impacted by the outcome of this case. Kik has stated that it intends to litigate through trial, and Kik and the Kin Foundation reportedly have raised a war chest of nearly $10 million (and are still seeking contributions to its defense fund).

Defenses

Although Kik has not yet answered the complaint or moved for its dismissal, the company’s position is well laid out in both a public statement from its General Counsel reacting to the filing, and an extensive Wells submission that Kik took the highly unusual step of making public. The General Counsel commented that the SEC’s complaint stretches the Howey test beyond its definition by, among other things, incorrectly assuming that any discussion of a potential increase in the value of an asset is the same as promising profits solely from the efforts of others. The Wells submission states that Kin was designed, marketed and offered as a currency to be used as a medium of exchange, taking it outside the definition of security, and that it was not offered or promoted as a passive investment opportunity. Besides extensively elaborating on its view that the Howey test is not met, Kik takes issue with “regulation by enforcement,” given the industry’s “desperate” need for guidance regarding the applicability of the federal securities laws.

Conclusion

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton stated last year that all ICOs he has seen are securities. And yet the SEC has pursued enforcement actions against only a small portion of ICOs – less than ten percent – most of which involved fraud or other intentional misconduct. It’s too soon to tell for sure, but this action might suggest that the SEC is now entering a new phase in its enforcement approach to ICOs.

A Foreboding View of Smart Contract Developer Liability

At least one regulator is attempting to provide clarity regarding the potential liability of actors who violate regulations through the use of smart contracts. On October 16, 2018, Commissioner Brian Quintenz of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission explained his belief that smart contract developers can be held liable for aiding and abetting CFTC rule violations if it was reasonably foreseeable that U.S. persons could use the smart contract they created to violate CFTC rules. As is typical, the Commissioner spoke for himself, but it seems likely that his views reflect the CFTC’s philosophy.

Generally speaking, smart contracts are code-based, self-executing contractual provisions. Smart contracts that run on top of blockchain protocols, like ethereum, are increasingly being used by companies in a wide variety of businesses to create autonomous, decentralized applications. Some of these applications might run afoul of CFTC regulations if they have the features of swaps, futures, options, or other CFTC-regulated products, but do not comply with the requisite regulatory requirements. The fact that smart contracts support disintermediated markets – a departure from the market intermediaries traditionally regulated by the CFTC – does not change the CFTC’s ability to extend its jurisdiction to them.

To identify where culpability might lie, Commissioner Quintenz identified the parties he believes to be essential to the functioning of the smart contract blockchain ecosystem:

  1. the core developers of the blockchain software;
  2. the miners that validate transactions;
  3. the developers of the smart contract applications; and
  4. users of the smart contracts.

Commissioner Quintenz dismissed the core developers and the miners as potential culpable parties by reasoning that while they both play a vital role in creating or administering the underlying blockchain code, they have no involvement in creating the smart contracts. He also limited the possibility of the CFTC pursuing enforcement against individual users because, as he explained, although individual users are culpable for their actions, “going after users may be an unsatisfactory, ineffective course of action.”

That leaves the developers of the smart contract code. Commissioner Quintenz stated that to ascertain the culpability of the smart contract code developers, the “appropriate question is whether these code developers could reasonably foresee, at the time they created the code, that it would likely be used by U.S. persons in a manner violative of CFTC regulations.” If such a use is foreseeable, Commissioner Quintenz believes that a “strong case could be made that the code developers aided and abetted violations of CFTC regulations.”

Commissioner Quintenz expressed that he would much rather pursue engagement than enforcement, “but in the absence of engagement, enforcement is the only option.” The Commissioner recommended that smart contract developers engage and collaborate with the CFTC prior to releasing their code to ensure that the code will be compliant with the law. The Commissioner even suggested that the CFTC is willing to rethink its existing regulations or provide regulatory relief, depending on the technology in question.

As blockchain and smart contract technology matures, we expect decentralized and disintermediated applications to come to market in increasing volumes. In his speech, Commissioner Quintenz provided valuable insight into how one regulator is thinking about applying existing laws to this new market. His remarks will be especially valuable if they influence other regulators, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, to take a similar approach.

EtherDelta Founder’s Settlement with the SEC Has Grim Implications for Smart Contract Developers

The SEC recently brought its first enforcement action against the creator of a “decentralized” digital token trading platform for operating as an unregistered national securities exchange, and in doing so joined the CFTC in putting a scare into smart contract developers.

On November 8, 2018, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order settling charges against Zachary Coburn, the creator of EtherDelta, an online “decentralized” digital token trading platform running on the Ethereum blockchain. The SEC charged only Coburn, the individual who founded EtherDelta, but no longer owns or operates it. Note that the SEC press release states that the investigation is continuing.

The SEC announced its action against Coburn a month after a CFTC Commissioner stated in a speech that smart contract developers could be found liable for aiding and abetting violations of commodity futures laws. Both agencies appear to be putting smart contract developers on notice that by releasing code into the ether, they are inviting potential liability for any rule violations, even if they sever their connections with the code.

The SEC found that EtherDelta provides a marketplace to bring together buyers and sellers of digital tokens. The platform facilitates these transactions through the use of a smart contract, which carries out the responsibilities generally assumed by an intermediary: the smart contract validates the order messages, confirms the terms and conditions of orders, executes paired orders, and directs the distributed ledger to be updated to reflect a trade. The SEC employed a “functional test” to determine whether EtherDelta constitutes an exchange and to hold Coburn, who “wrote and deployed the EtherDelta smart contract . . . and exercised complete and sole control over EtherDelta’s operations,” responsible. As the Chief of the SEC’s cyber unit stated in the press release, “[w]hether it’s decentralized or not, whether it’s on smart contract or not, what matters is it’s an exchange.”

EtherDelta is one example of the innovation that smart contracts can facilitate. Innovation, however, is not a substitute for compliance. Indeed, in the SEC’s press release announcing the settlement, Co-Director of Enforcement Steven Peiken acknowledged that blockchain technology is ushering in significant innovation to the securities markets, but cautioned that “to protect investors, this innovation necessitates the SEC’s thoughtful oversight of digital markets and enforcement of existing laws.”

Significantly, the SEC found that certain transactions on the platform involved digital tokens that constitute securities, but declined to identify those tokens. Senior SEC officials have previously stated that ether is not a security, but this case shows that the SEC has not reached the same determination for all tokens issued on the Ethereum blockchain.

Just Another Week on the Blockchain: September 10-16, 2018

The week of September 10th was particularly eventful and saw a rather large number of recent enforcement and regulatory developments, even by blockchain industry standards. Notable actions seen during the week included the first time the SEC has issued an order against a cryptocurrency company for operating an unregistered broker-dealer; the first time the SEC has brought and settled charges against a hedge fund manager that invested in cryptocurrencies while operating as an unregistered investment company; the first FINRA disciplinary action involving cryptocurrencies; a decision by EDNY Judge Raymond Dearie in U.S. v. Zaslavskiy; the authorization of two stablecoin cryptocurrencies pegged to the U.S. dollar by the New York Department of Financial Services; and the release of Chairman Clayton’s “Statement Regarding SEC Staff Views.”

For summaries of these developments, read our recent Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Alert.