Keyword: SEC

The 2019 Token Taxonomy Act: A Path to Consumer Protection and Innovation Takes Shape

We’ve previously written that the Token Taxonomy Act first introduced to Congress by Representatives Warren Davidson (R-OH) and Darren Soto (D-FL) on December 20, 2018, was a welcome legislative initiative designed to provide a regulatory “light touch” to the burgeoning digital asset industry. The bill expired, however, with the termination of the 115th Congress, leaving open the question of what any future blockchain regulatory proposals, would look like. The industry’s questions were answered on April 9, 2019 when Representatives Davidson and Soto introduced the Digital Taxonomy Act of 2019 (DTA) and the Token Taxonomy Act of 2019 (TTA) to the 116th Congress. The DTA and TTA represent expanded efforts to clarify regulation and spur blockchain innovation in the United States.

According to Representatives Davidson and Soto, the DTA is meant to add jurisdictional certainty to efforts to combat fraudulent behavior in the digital asset industry. As such, the DTA grants the FTC $25,000,000 and orders it to prepare reports on its efforts to combat fraud and deceptive behavior. The DTA also specifically carves out from its purview the authority of the CFTC to regulate digital assets as commodities subject to the Commodities Exchange Act.

The 2019 TTA, with the backing of four bipartisan representatives in addition to Davidson and Soto, is similar to last year’s model. Besides defining digital assets and exempting them from certain securities law requirements, the 2019 TTA maintains proposals to amend the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 so that certain regulated entities can hold digital assets. Like the 2018 version of the TTA, the 2019 TTA would also allow the sale of digital assets to qualify for the benefits of Internal Revenue Code Section 1031 like-kind exchange provisions and for the first $600 dollars of profit from digital asset sales to be tax-free.

The TTA also has important updates. The most prominent change is the definition of a “digital asset.” As we’ve previously discussed, the 2018 version of the TTA required that a digital asset’s transaction history could not be “materially altered by a single person or group of persons under common control” to qualify for exemption from securities laws. Because of the unavoidable possibility of a 51% attack, which would alter a token’s transaction history, the language created the possibility that proof of work- and proof of stake-based tokens would not be eligible for regulatory relief, thus limiting the bill’s benefits.

In the re-proposed TTA, however, the newly proposed language of Section 2(a)(20)(B)(ii) requires that the transaction history, still recorded in a mathematically verifiable process, “resist modification or tampering by any single person or group of persons under common control.” Thus, any digital asset, even those subject to 51% attacks, may be exempt from certain securities law requirements, although the language appears to require that a governance or security system underline the token’s consensus system.

Another important update is the TTA’s proposed preemption of state regulation of the digital asset industry by federal authorities. While the TTA would still permit states to retain antifraud regulatory authority, it largely strips states’ rights to regulate digital assets as securities. Representative Davidson’s press release on the bill specifically cites the “onerous” requirements of the New York BitLicense regulatory regime as a reason for the inclusion of this provision.

Critics have been quick to point out that the bills, while well intentioned, leave many unanswered questions and therefore may not provide the regulatory certainty the bills’ authors hope to effect. And even a perfect bill would face an uphill battle in getting enacted these days. But the digital asset industry should nonetheless take comfort in the growing contingent of legislators who take seriously the imperative to balance consumer protection and blockchain innovation.

Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust: SEC Staff Provides Its “Plain English” Framework to Guide Future Discussions

The SEC chose a week that saw the price of Bitcoin spike by over $700 in an hour, kicking off a rally reminiscent of the go-go days of 2017, to issue its long-awaited “plain English” guidance for determining whether a digital asset constitutes a “security” under the federal securities laws.

The SEC also unexpectedly released its first no-action letter to a company planning to issue a digital asset without registering the transaction under Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 12(g) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.

Now that the dust has settled, we can start to analyze what all this means for the digital asset industry. Upon review, the Bitcoin rally might have been the more impactful event.

On April 3, a statement entitled “Framework for ‘Investment Contract’ Analysis of Digital Assets” (the “Framework”) was issued by Bill Hinman, Director of Division of Corporation Finance, and Valerie Szczepanik, Senior Advisor for Digital Assets and Innovation; and the Commission’s Division of Corporation Finance issued its first no-action letter regarding digital assets to TurnKey Jet, Inc., a U.S.-based air carrier and air taxi service.

The Framework goes out of its way to caution that it represents the views of the Strategic HUB for Innovation and Financial Technology of the Commission and is not a rule, regulation or statement of the Commission: that the Commission has neither approved nor disapproved its content; and that it is not binding on the Divisions of the Commission. The Framework further emphasizes its limited scope: “Even if no registration is required, activities involving digital assets that are securities may still be subject to the Commission’s regulation and oversight,” for example buying, selling, or trading; facilitating exchanges; and holding or storing digital assets. Thus, the Framework has limited utility from a factual, legal or precedential standpoint. Nevertheless, we expect it to be a significant source document that will be cited by the Commission, practitioners, and courts alike.

On the same day, the Commission’s Division of Corporation Finance issued its first no-action letter regarding digital assets to TurnKey Jet, Inc., a U.S.-based air carrier and air taxi service (the “No-Action Letter”). The No-Action Letter is not binding on the Commission and only applies to the very specific, and restrictive, set of conditions presented in the No-Action Letter request and, therefore, it does not have broad implications for the industry in general. Like the Framework, the No-Action Letter provides little guidance to the industry, but it should be touted as a step in the right direction, albeit a small step.

Though the Framework and No-Action Letter are not as helpful as some might have hoped, both are key developments that shed light on the Staff’s current views regarding the regulation of digital assets and the activities of industry participants under the federal securities laws.

The Framework

The Framework, which the Staff emphasized does not “replace or supersede existing case law, legal requirements or statements or guidance” from the SEC, largely relies on the 73-year-old Howey test for determining whether a digital asset is a security in the form of an “investment contract.” The Howey test is composed of four prongs: (i) an investment of money; (ii) in a common enterprise; (iii) with a reasonable expectation of profit; (iv) derived from the efforts of others.

The Framework succinctly analyzes the applicability of the first two prongs to an offer and sale of a digital asset in three sentences and reserves the other nine pages for the latter two prongs. It is reasonable to ask whether the existence of a common enterprise in an offer and sale of a digital asset is as foregone a conclusion as the SEC evidently believes.

The Framework introduces a term to identify the principal actor or actors in the development or maintenance of a digital asset network, an “Active Participant” or “AP,” broadly defined to include a “promoter, sponsor, or other third party (or affiliated group of third parties).” The activities of the Active Participants are emphasized as critical factors for determining whether a purchaser has a reasonable expectation of profits (or other financial return) to be derived from the efforts of others. This is an expansive reading of the Howey test. For example, under the Framework the following are indicative of reliance by the purchaser of a digital asset on the “efforts of others”: (i) when an AP promises “further developmental efforts in order for the digital asset to attain or grow in value”; (ii) when the purchaser expects that the AP will be “performing or overseeing tasks that are necessary for the network or digital asset to achieve or retain its intended purpose or functionality”; (iii) an AP creates or supports a market for the digital asset; (iv) an AP maintains a managerial role in the project; and (v) when a purchaser would reasonably expect the AP to “undertake efforts to promote its own interests and enhance the value of the network or digital asset.” As an aside, introducing the concept of “Active Participant” suggests that the SEC might be in the early stages of promulgating a refined regulatory scheme for digital currency that focuses on the role of actors whose efforts help maintain or enhance the value of existing currency.

In the section entitled “Other Relevant Considerations,” the Framework spells out how a digital asset can be structured to avoid being considered a security. As a general matter, the stronger the presence of certain identified characteristics, the less likely a digital asset would constitute a security under the Howey test. These characteristics include (i) the network is fully developed and operational; (ii) holders of the digital asset are immediately able to use it for its intended functionality; (iii) the good or service underlying the digital asset can only be acquired, or more efficiently acquired, through the use of the digital asset on the network; and (iv) the digital asset is marketed in a manner that emphasizes the functionality of the digital asset. However, some of the other characteristics cited would pose challenges for “traditional” digital asset issuances, including: (i) prospects for appreciation in the value of the digital asset are limited, e.g. the design of the digital asset provides that its value will remain constant or even degrade over time; and (ii) if the AP facilitates the creation of a secondary market, transfer of the digital asset may be made only by and among users of the platform.

The Framework briefly discusses when a digital asset “previously sold as a security” should be reevaluated at the time of later offer or sale. Relevant considerations in that reevaluation include whether purchasers “no longer reasonably expect that continued development efforts of an AP will be a key factor for determining the value of the digital asset.” The broad definition of AP is especially troubling when coupled with the Framework’s broad list of examples of continued involvement by the AP in the development or management of the network or digital asset because it arguably could apply to almost any project in the industry.

This discussion is largely a restatement of Director Hinman’s oft-cited speech “When Howey Met Gary (Plastic),” and is generally not helpful in addressing the great leap required to transition from a product developed by a group of identifiable individuals to a “de-centralized” organization. Note that the Framework does not address, among other things, the status of SAFTs and the issuance of tokens thereunder. It also says nothing about projects where sale of tokens are restricted to non-U.S. buyers, and U.S. residents later wish to use the tokens.

No-Action Letter

In the No-Action Letter, the Division of Corporation Finance indicated that, subject to specified conditions, it would not recommend enforcement action to the Commission if TurnKey Jet offers and sells its tokens without registration under the Securities Act and the Exchange Act. The No-Action Letter is instructive because it provides an example of the narrow range of activities that, under the Framework, would exclude a digital currency from treatment as a security. Some of the key features of the digital asset represented in the No-Action Letter request include:

  • TurnKey will not use any funds from the token sale to develop its platform, network, or application, and “[e]ach of these will be fully developed and operational at the time any tokens are sold.”
  • TurnKey’s tokens will be immediately usable for their intended functionality when they are sold.
  • The seller must restrict transfers of the tokens to its proprietary wallet.
  • The token’s marketing focuses on the functionality of the token and not its investment value.
  • The tokens will be priced at US$1 per token “through the life of the program” with each token essentially functioning as a prepaid coupon for TurnKey’s air charter services.

While TurnKey can celebrate being the recipient of the first no-action letter regarding the registration requirements of the Securities Act and the Exchange Act applicable to digital assets, the highly restrictive covenants it must abide by to avoid registration are in conflict with the characteristics of most ICOs and, therefore, the No-Action Letter provides little relief to the typical industry participant.


Although the Framework and the No-Action Letter largely reiterated what digital asset market participants already knew, taken together they have opened the door to further constructive discussions with the Staff that, hopefully, will produce more clear-cut guidance based upon the analysis of specific cases.

The Beat Goes On: Division of Investment Management Seeks Input on the Impact of the Custody Rule on Digital Currency – and Vice Versa

As part of its ongoing examination of the Custody Rule, the SEC’s Division of Investment Management is seeking views from the securities industry members and the public on two issues regarding the Custody Rule: (1) the application of that rule to trading that is not handled on a delivery versus payment basis, and (2) the application of the rule to digital assets. In a March 12, 2019 letter to the President and CEO of the Investment Adviser Association published on the SEC’s website (“the Custody Release”), the Division seeks input to expand on its Guidance Update from early 2017. Both issues are important in view of the increasing complexity of types of securities that registered investment advisers are purchasing on behalf of their customers and, as discussed below, the issues overlap in a way that might predict an important use case for blockchain technology.

The Custody Rule

The Custody Rule under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 provides that it is a fraudulent, deceptive or manipulative act, practice or course of business for a registered investment adviser to have “custody” of client funds or securities unless they are maintained in accordance with the requirements of the Custody Rule. The definition of custody includes arrangements where the adviser has authority over and access to client securities and funds.

By way of context, we note that although the Custody Rule applies only to registered investment advisers, its concepts are relevant for non-registered advisers and other intermediaries as well, since their clients or customers have a practical interest in assuring that: managed assets are appropriately safeguarded; and the absence of appropriate custody arrangements may preclude a client from investing with a particular adviser.

Also, as the Custody Release notes, the Division previously issued a letter inviting engagement on questions relating to the application of the Investment Company Act of 1940, including the custody provisions of that Act, to cryptocurrencies and related products.

The Custody Rule and DVP Arrangements

The Custody Release points out that when an investment adviser manages funds pursuant to delivery versus payment arrangements – that is, when transfers of funds or securities can only be conducted together with a corresponding transfer of securities or funds – then it provides certain protections to customers from misappropriation by the adviser. The Release seeks to assist the Division in gathering information on payment practices that do not involve delivery versus payment, seeking input on, among other things: the variety of instruments that trade on that basis; the risk of misappropriation or loss associated with such trading; and how such trades appear on client accounts statements.

The Custody Rule and Digital Assets

The Custody Release also asks about the extent to which evolving technologies, such as blockchain/distributed ledger technology, provide enhanced client protection in the context of non-delivery versus payment trading. That question presents a good lead-in to the second part of the Custody Release, which seeks to learn “whether and how characteristics particular to digital assets affect compliance with the Custody Rule.” These characteristics include:

– the use of distributed ledger technology to record ownership;

– the use of public and private cryptographic keys to transfer digital assets;

– the “immutability” of blockchains;

– the inability to restore or recover digital assets once lost;

– the generally anonymous nature of DLT transactions; and

– the challenges posed to auditors in examining DLT and digital assets.

With these characteristics in mind, the Division asks are fairly open-ended about the challenges faced by investment advisers in complying with the Custody Rule with respect to digital assets, including:

– to what extent are investment advisers construing digital assets as funds or securities?

– are investment advisers including digital assets in calculating regulatory assets under management in considering with they need to register with the SEC?

– how can concerns about misappropriation of digital assets be addressed?

– what is the process for settlement of digital asset transactions, either with or without an intermediary?

The most forward-looking question asked in the Release is whether digital ledger technology can be used for evidencing ownership of securities. The answer to this question – which could represent a direct application of the blockchain’s ability to record ownership and its immutability – could pave the way to resolving custody concerns with respect to any asset class transacted in by investment advisers on behalf of their clients. It certainly points the way to an important possible use of blockchain technology – to demonstrate custody in a way that is immutable, anonymous and auditable. Technologists, get to work!

The Custody Release’s questions are a significant next step in drawing digital assets into the embrace of investment adviser regulation, but a positive step nonetheless.

SEC’s Light Touch: An ICO Settlement Without a Penalty

In another first for the digital token industry, on February 20 the SEC announced a settlement involving a self-reported unregistered initial coin offering (ICO) without imposing a penalty. Like its earlier settlements with AirFox and Paragon, the SEC required Gladius Network LLC to repay investors and register its GLA tokens as securities. This time, however, in a sign that the SEC is willing to work with companies trying to come into compliance, the SEC did not impose a monetary penalty due to the company’s “decision to self-report and its extensive cooperation with the staff’s subsequent investigation.”

Having just completed their freshman year at the University of Maryland College Park in 2017, Max Niebylski, Alex Godwin, and Marcelo McAndrew during their summer break founded Gladius as a cyber security company dedicated to ending Distributed Denial of Service attacks. On September 27, 2017 Gladius released a White Paper, and between October 13, 2017 and December 13, 2017 it raised a total of $12.7 million dollars through the sale of GLA tokens.

In an apparent attempt to maneuver around the securities laws and avail itself of the as-yet-untested utility token defense – which attempts to show that the tokens did not represent an investment contract but rather, like it sounds, something with utility for the purchaser – Gladius required participants in the ICO to warrant that they were purchasing GLA tokens “solely for the purpose of accessing Services . . . [and not for] any investment, speculative or other financial purposes.” Nevertheless, in the summer of 2018 Gladius self-reported the unregistered sale of GLA tokens to the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.

The SEC, in the settlement order, included a one-sentence Howey analysis, finding that the sale of GLA tokens met the factors of Howey because “[a] purchaser in the offering of GLA Tokens would have had a reasonable expectation of obtaining a future profit based upon Gladius’s efforts to create a ‘marketplace’ using the proceeds from the sale of GLA Tokens and to provide investors with liquidity by making GLA Tokens tradeable on secondary markets.”

Although the Company will have to comply with notice and reporting requirements under the federal securities laws, the only ordered monetary relief is the requirement that the Company refund GLA token purchases made between September 2017 and December 2017 pursuant to a claims process similar to what the SEC devised for the AirFox and Paragon settlements. Given the infrequency with which investors actually file claims, it is unlikely that the Company will end up refunding the full $12.7 million-dollar obligation it faces.

In another notable deviation from the AirFox and Paragon settlements, the SEC directed Gladius to provide the Commission advance notice if it planned to file a Form 15 to terminate its registration pursuant to Rule 12g-4 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 on the grounds that the GLA Tokens no longer constitute a “class of securities.” This seemingly superfluous requirement could be the SEC’s way of signaling to the industry that token issuances that remain below the monetary and holder threshold requirements of Rule 12g-4 will not run afoul of securities laws.

All told, the Gladius settlement is proof that the SEC continues to show leniency to token issuers who violated the securities laws if they act in good faith and come into compliance.

Blockvest II: Court Reverses Itself and Grants the SEC a Preliminary Injunction in the Face of Manifest Fraud

As we previously discussed, the SEC suffered a rare defeat in Securities and Exchange Commission v. Blockvest, LLC et al. on November 27, when Judge Curiel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California issued a denial (the “November Order”) of its motion for a preliminary injunction against Defendants’ future violations of Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 (“Section 17(a)”), despite manifest evidence of fraudulent representations in the Defendants’ website postings. The November Order attracted intense scrutiny and on December 17, the SEC moved for partial reconsideration of the November Order. Last week, on February 14, the court granted, in part, the SEC’s motion for reconsideration (the “February Order” and, together with the November Order, the “Orders”), relying on purported new evidence and an argument that the court apparently had overlooked. It is fair to ask whether the new evidence motivated the reversal.

As Judge Curiel recited, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a motion for reconsideration is appropriate, among other reasons, if the district court is “presented with newly discovered evidence.” Judge Curiel stated that the standard for granting a preliminary injunction requires the SEC to show: “(1) a prima facie case of previous violations of federal securities laws, and (2) a reasonable likelihood that the wrong will be repeated.” Based upon these standards, the court concluded that reconsideration in this case was warranted “based upon a prima facie showing of Defendants’ past securities violation and newly developed evidence which support the conclusion that there is a reasonable likelihood of future violations.” However, it is not clear what “newly developed evidence” formed the basis for this conclusion.

In applying the Howey test to the tokens offered by Blockvest, the court agreed with the SEC that “the Howey test is unquestionably an objective one.” The court disputed the SEC’s assertion that in the November Order the court had applied a “subjective test” by relying solely on the beliefs of some individual investors. Rather, the court stated that it had “objectively inquire[d] into the ‘terms of promotional materials, information, economic inducements or oral representations at the seminars, or in other words, an inquiry into the ‘character of the instrument or transaction offered’ to the ‘purchasers.’”

The court emphasized that in the November Order it had denied the motion for a preliminary injunction “because there were disputed factual issues as to the nature of the investment offered to alleged investors.” Nonetheless, the court acknowledged that in denying the SEC’s motion for a preliminary injunction, it did not “directly address” an alternate theory originally presented by the SEC that the promotional materials presented on Defendants’ website, in the whitepaper posted online, and on social media accounts concerning the ICO of the token constituted an offer of unregistered securities that contained materially false statements and therefore violated Section 17(a). The court again applied the Howey test to find that the tokens being offered were securities. The court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that applied state law to interpret “offer” narrowly to require a manifestation of an intent to be bound, finding that “offer” is broadly defined under the securities laws.

The court also found that the SEC had satisfied the required showing that there is a reasonable likelihood of future violations, one of the elements of injunctive relief. In support of its ruling, the court cited the misrepresentations in Defendants’ website postings that had been detailed in the November Order and which were manifestly fraudulent. Based upon this information, addressed by the SEC in supplemental briefing, the court granted partial reconsideration of the November Order.

Also factored into the February Order were the findings that defense counsel had moved to withdraw as counsel because “the firm found it necessary to terminate representation due to, inter alia, Defendants instructing counsel to file certain documents that counsel could not certify under Rules of Civil Procedures 11… and Defendants have yet to find substitute counsel.” The court stated its concerns that Defendants would resume their prior alleged fraudulent conduct, in light of its order allowing defense counsel to withdraw.

Given the severity of the fraudulent representations as alleged in the SEC’s action, which included false claims of approval by federal regulators and a wholly fabricated federal agency, it was surprising that the court had originally denied the SEC’s request for a preliminary injunction; the need to shut down ongoing fraud and protect investors often drives a court’s rulings on requests for interim relief in these cases. It appears that in reversing itself, the court rethought its reasoning based on the information and arguments that the SEC had originally presented. In one telling ruling in the new decision, the court declined to accept new arguments raised by defendants in opposition to the motion for reconsideration because they had not previously raised them. It appears that the SEC can shrug off its original loss and continue to seek to shut down this alleged fraud with all the power of the federal securities laws.

The Token Taxonomy Act: A Fatal Drafting Ambiguity

As we’ve previously written, the Token Taxonomy Act (TTA) is an ambitious and potentially impactful piece of legislation that, by exempting digital tokens from the securities laws, might remove regulatory inhibitions from the maturing digital token industry. The bill is not without fault, however. As it stands, the language of the bill requiring that a digital token’s consensus be inalterable is ambiguously written and the SEC could use a strict interpretation to preclude many digital assets from qualifying as digital tokens.

The proposed additional language of Section 2(a)(20)(B) of the Securities Act of 1933 reads that to qualify for the exemption, a digital token:

(i) must be recorded in a distributed, digital ledger or digital data structure in which consensus is achieved through a mathematically verifiable process; and

(ii) after consensus is reached, cannot be materially altered by a single person or group of persons under common control.

In other words, a digital token must use an inalterable and objectively verifiable process. This language is designed to include in the definition only those digital tokens that are or will be in widespread enough use so that no one single party can influence the nature of the outstanding tokens in a way that adversely affects digital token holders.

The proposed language creates the possibility that the SEC could strictly apply the requirement that a token “cannot” be materially altered. As it stands, proof-of-work and even proof-of-stake digital assets are susceptible to a 51% attack, which could alter the digital token’s consensus. “Proof-of-work” and “proof-of-stake” refer to different systems used to verify and process transactions on a blockchain.

A “51% attack” is an event in which a party takes control of the requisite computer power underlying a token’s blockchain such that the party can control the token platform’s operation. Typically, a party seeking such control needs to possess 51% of the outstanding tokens, but the threshold amount can be lower for individual digital assets. A party that has successfully executed a 51% attack can change the ledger history so that it can, for example, double-spend tokens.

The SEC could negate the potential application of the TTA because the recent 51% attack against Ethereum Classic shows that the risk of attack against proof-of-work digital assets, especially those with a low market capitalization, is real. And although the proof-of-stake system makes a 51% attack prohibitively expensive, the SEC could justifiably claim that it is theoretically possible. An irrational, non-economic actor could still stage a 51% attack against a proof-of-stake digital asset with an intent to destroy it rather than to make profit.

In the end, the ambiguity in the bill’s language might not have a deleterious effect. It is hoped that a regulator would not strictly interpret the bill’s language to exclude the intended beneficiaries because of a hypothetical possibility of a 51% attack. So, too, the digital asset industry will likely continue to innovate new and more secure protocols that could potentially eliminate the threat of 51% attacks, making potential exclusion from the bill’s benefits a moot point. Nonetheless, as the TTA undergoes revision, the potential ambiguity in the proposed language should be remedied.

SEC and FINRA Confirm Digital Assets a 2019 Examination Priority

Recently, the Staffs of the SEC and FINRA announced their annual examination and regulatory priorities: the SEC’s Office of Compliance, Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) issued its 2019 Examination Priorities just before its employees were sent home on furlough, and FINRA issued its 2019 Risk Monitoring and Examination Priorities Letter last week, several weeks later than its usual first-of-the-year release. The high points and overlap of the two releases are covered in an Orrick Client Alert, but for purposes of On the Chain, we will briefly discuss the two regulators’ not-surprising designation of digital currency as one of their priorities.

The priorities letters clearly telegraph both regulators’ intentions to examine firms’ participation in the digital assets marketplace. OCIE flags digital assets as a concern because of the market’s significant growth and risks. OCIE indicates that it will issue high-level inquiries designed first to identify market participants offering, selling, trading, and managing these assets, or considering or actively seeking to offer these products. Once it identifies those participants, OCIE will then assess the extent of their activities and examine firms focused on “portfolio management of digital assets, trading, safety of client funds and assets, pricing of client portfolios, compliance, and internal controls.”

For its part, FINRA treats digital assets under the heading of “Operational Risks,” and encourages firms to notify it if they plan to engage in activities related to digital assets, even, curiously, “where a membership application is not required.” In this context, FINRA references its Regulation Notice 18-20, July 6, 2018, which is headlined “FINRA Encourages Firms to Notify FIRNA If They Engage in Activities Related to Digital Assets.” These initiatives provide a partial explanation for the long-expected delays in FINRA granting member firms explicit authority to effect transactions in digital assets.

FINRA also states its intention to review these activities and assess firms’ compliance with applicable securities laws and regulations and related supervisory, compliance and operational controls to mitigate the risks associated with such activities. FINRA states that it will look at whether firms have implemented adequate controls and supervision over compliance with rules related to the marketing, sale, execution, control, clearance, recordkeeping and valuation of digital assets, as well as AML/Bank Secrecy Act rules and regulations. These issues are addressed in detail in FINRA’s January 2017 report on “Distributed Ledger Technology: Implications of Blockchain for the Securities Industry.”

The SEC and FINRA clearly will seek to align their concerns about firms participating in the digital asset markets and the compliance and supervision standards to which they will hold them. The regulators’ jurisdiction overlaps, but the SEC’s is broader – it extends to all issuers, while FINRA would be limited only to those issuers that are member broker-dealer firms. The SEC also has jurisdiction over investment advisers, while FINRA again is limited to those advisers who are members. And because the SEC effectively owns the definition of security, FINRA also states its intention to coordinate closely with the SEC in considering how firms determine whether a particular digital asset is a security. At the same time, FINRA has jurisdiction over any activities engaged in by broker-dealers with respect to its customers, even those that do not involve a security, meaning that a member firm’s transactions in or custody of, for example, bitcoin – declared by the SEC not to be a security – still will implicate FINRA’s oversight.

The regulators’ coordination on their digital currency reviews will likely not diminish regulatory attention, but at least it will provide industry participants some comfort that coordinated thought is being given to how best to regulate this emerging area.

Transactors in Digital Tokens – New Bill Offers Hope

On December 20, 2018, Representatives Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and Darren Soto (D-Fla) offered some early holiday hope to digital token issuers by introducing the “Token Taxonomy Act” (the TTA). If passed, the TTA would exclude “digital tokens” from the federal securities laws and would undoubtedly have profound effects for the U.S. digital token economy. The TTA is an ambitious piece of legislation that faces an uncertain future. Nevertheless, Representatives Davidson and Soto should be commended for attempting to provide some regulatory relief and certainty to an industry that has been yearning for it.

In addition to exempting digital tokens from the securities laws, the TTA would amend the Internal Revenue Code and classify the exchange of digital tokens as like-kind exchanges under Section 1031, and allow digital tokens to be held by retirement accounts.

The TTA would also amend language in the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 so that state-regulated trust companies, which include broker dealers, investment advisors and investment companies, would be able to hold digital assets for customers.

According to the TTA’s authors, the intention behind the bill is to provide much-needed regulatory certainty to digital token issuers and to ensure the U.S. remains competitive against other countries like Switzerland, where blockchain startups are thriving.

However, the TTA’s benefits are hypothetical at this point, since it is likely to be opposed by the SEC. On November 30, 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton opined at a New York Times-hosted event that SEC rules were made by “geniuses” and “have stood the test of time.” He stated that he did not foresee changing rules “just to fit a technology.” While he was not referring specifically to the TTA, these comments indicate an unwillingness by the SEC to change its longstanding rules to accommodate a nascent technology.

Even if the bill is passed, it would permit the SEC to determine whether a particular digital unit qualifies as a security and therefore is subject to the SEC’s regulation. The SEC thus would have the power to halt an offering and force compliance with the applicable securities laws. The TTA would spare issuers from any penalties if they have acted in good faith and take reasonable steps to cease sales. But with an unclear, and a potentially costly or lengthy, appeals process, the SEC could discourage issuers from taking the risk of attempting to qualify and sell digital tokens from the start. This provision would blunt the intended deregulatory impact of the TTA.

Although its future is uncertain, the TTA shows that there are government leaders that are listening to the concerns of the digital token issuers. If the TTA is introduced in the 116th Congress, it will be a piece of legislation worth tracking. Even if this particular bill is not enacted, it might point the way to other legislation whose passage might provide some regulatory relief to those who transact in digital tokens.

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.