Keyword: Ethereum

The SEC Gets its Kiks out of a Successful Application of the Howey Test

In a closely-watched cryptocurrency case, on September 30, the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of the SEC in SEC v. Kik Interactive, Inc., holding that the Kin tokens Kik had offered and sold through a pre-sale and ICO were securities under the Howey test. The case illustrates the difficulties cryptocurrency companies face when they try to avoid having their tokens classified as securities; even though Kik intended to create a decentralized ecosystem for their Kin tokens on which third parties would supply products and services, the Court reasoned that Kik’s essential role in driving that ecosystem meant that token holders were reliant on Kik’s efforts to realize a profit on their Kin holdings.

Kin tokens were issued on the Ethereum blockchain, and Kik planned to develop an ecosystem of products and services that accepted Kin as currency. Kik stated in its white paper that Kin purchasers would profit through an appreciation of the value of Kin – as more products and services became available within the Kik ecosystem there would be a greater demand for Kin, but the supply of tokens would remain fixed. This increased demand against a fixed supply would drive up the price, which Kin holders could realize by selling their Kin on secondary markets. Kik would not be the sole developer of products and services in the ecosystem – third party participation was expected.

Courts use the Howey test to analyze whether a cryptocurrency is an “investment contract,” which is a type of security. The Howey test is comprised of three prongs: (1) an investment of money (2) in a common enterprise (3) with a reasonable expectation of profit derived from the managerial or entrepreneurial efforts of others.

Kik’s critical role to the development of the Kin ecosystem was enough for the Court to find that Kin holders expected to derive their profit from Kik’s efforts, thereby making Kin a security (the other two prongs of the Howey test were more clearly met). The Court found that “the economic reality is that Kik, as it said it would, pooled proceeds from its sales of Kin in an effort to create an infrastructure for Kin, and thus boost the value of the investment,” and that, while Kik planned for Kins to have a “consumptive use,” those uses were not available at the time of the Kin distribution and would “materialize only if the enterprise advertised by Kik turned out to be successful.” Growth of the company “would rely heavily on Kik’s entrepreneurial and managerial efforts,” the Court found, because Kik would play an “essential role…in establishing the market” and “Kik had to be the primary driver of [the] ecosystem”; Kik planned to provide significant resources to develop the Kin ecosystem, to integrate Kin into their Kik messenger product, and to provide incentives for developers to create new uses for Kin. Furthermore, if Kik did not follow through with the aforementioned efforts and no ecosystem developed, “Kin would be worthless.”

This reasoning around the “efforts of others” prong is similar to what the Southern District of New York said in SEC v. Telegram, where the Court applied a “Bahamas Test,” reasoning that were the Telegram team to immediately decamp to a tropical island after launching their blockchain, the TON Blockchain project and Grams would “likely lack the mass adoption, vibrancy, and utility that would enable the Initial Purchasers to earn their expected huge profits.” Telegram, like Kik, also had plans to integrate their token into their proprietary messaging product.

A determination of whether a financial instrument is a security based upon the Howey test depends of course upon the facts and circumstances of the particular matter. The Court ruled against Kik Interactive principally because the company disclosed that the value of tokens purchased could increase based upon the company’s efforts, and because at the time of the token sales the tokens did not yet have an immediate utility. A different result might have been reached if the company already had established a working infrastructure in which the tokens had a use independent of investment value. It is not clear that would be enough in all cases to defeat application of the securities laws, but it is at least one helpful argument.

The CFTC Wants to Know More About Ether: Your Feedback Could Impact Ether Futures in 2019

The CFTC is giving the public an opportunity to influence its views as they relate to Ethereum, Ether or similar virtual currencies or projects. On December 11, 2018 the CFTC issued a Request for Information (the “Request”) seeking public comments and feedback on Ether and the Ethereum Network. The Request “seeks to understand similarities and distinctions between certain virtual currencies, including Ether and Bitcoin, as well as Ether-specific opportunities, challenges, and risks,” according to the accompanying press release. The version of the Request published in the Federal Register states that public comments must be received on or before February 15, 2019.

Individuals and companies involved in cryptocurrency, especially if related to the Ethereum Network or one of its competitors, should consider making a submission. The Request states that information submitted to the CFTC will be used to inform the work of LabCFTC (a dedicated function of the CFTC, launched in 2017 to “make the CFTC more accessible to FinTech innovators”) and the CFTC as a whole. It appears likely that the CFTC will look to the submissions to assist it in deciding whether to green light Ether futures trading.

Of the over 2,000 cryptocurrencies currently in circulation, Bitcoin is the only one for which futures contracts are traded on regulated futures exchanges. Bitcoin is also the only cryptocurrency which the SEC (through Chairman Clayton’s testimony) has officially deemed not to be a security. As mentioned in the Request, a certain SEC senior official recently stated that offers and sales of Ether, in its current state, are not securities transactions. The SEC’s stance on Ether likely paves the way for the CFTC to green-light regulated futures exchanges, such as the Chicago Board Options Exchange, to offer Ether futures contracts.

The cryptocurrency market is desperate for some good news to pull it out of the prolonged bear market it is currently enduring. Many had hoped that the announcement of Ether futures would be the catalyst that turns the market around. It appears possible that the CFTC will authorize Ether futures contracts, once it has reviewed the comments submitted in response to this request.

 

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.