Keyword: SEC

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.

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.

What FINRA’s Cryptocurrency First Disciplinary Action Means for Employers

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) made it a 2018 goal to monitor and supervise the cryptocurrency market, which has been largely unregulated to-date. In September 2018, FINRA filed its first disciplinary action involving cryptocurrencies alleging securities fraud. What should employers, in particular start-ups or legacy companies with new industry sectors, be aware of regarding legal issues related to these emerging issues?

Learn more from this recent employment law post.

 

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.

SEC Finds Digital Tokens Issued in Exchange for Services Can Still Constitute Securities

In a recent settled enforcement action, In the Matter of Tomahawk Exploration LLC and David Thompson Laurance, the SEC found that the issuance of digital tokens in exchange for services, rather than money, can still constitute an offering of securities.

Learn what this decision might mean for the future of initial coin offerings from this recent Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Alert.

CFTC Chairman Includes Fintech and Virtual Currency in Agency’s Priorities

On July 25th, 2018, CFTC Chairman Giancarlo addressed the House Committee on Agriculture regarding the agency’s priorities and recent work. A significant portion of his testimony focused on the CFTC’s oversight of fintech and cryptocurrencies.

Learn about the CFTC’s regulatory approach to cryptocurrency and distributed ledger technology in this recent derivatives post.