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block.one Agrees to $24M Settlement with SEC

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block.one Agrees to $24M Settlement with SEC

Settlement

A long battle between block.one and the SEC has finally found a resolution. The case, which saw the SEC accuse block.one of illegally distributing digital securities, saw a final settlement of $24 million, and a ‘Neither Admit nor Deny’ stance.

Charged

These charges date back to an ICO surrounding an ERC-20 based token that raised $4.1 billion. Unfortunately, at the time, block.one neglected to register the event with the SEC. By failing to do so, the event represented the distribution of unregistered securities, which is obviously not allowed.

ERC-20 Migration and Waivers

The tokens sold during this event have been migrated to a different blockchain, meaning they are no longer in circulation. With this being the case, along with the on-going efforts of block.one to remain complaint with regulations, the SEC has granted them a waiver, moving forward.

Block.one indicates that this waiver will exempt the company from ongoing scrutiny in their operations – which is typical for companies that reach similar settlements; meaning most must endure a sort of ‘parole’, post settlement, ensuring continued compliance.

Commentary

In response to the settlement, both, the SEC and block.one took the time to share their thoughts. The following is what each had to say on the matter.

Steven Peikin, Co-director at the SECs Division of Enforcement, stated,

“Block.one did not provide ICO investors the information they were entitled to as participants in a securities offering…The SEC remains committed to bringing enforcement cases when investors are deprived of material information they need to make informed investment decisions.” 

block.one stated,

“We are excited to resolve these discussions with the SEC and are committed to ongoing collaboration with regulators and policy makers as the world continues to develop more clarity around compliance frameworks for digital assets…Blockchain’s ability to better align organizations with their consumers, increase the transparency of critical database infrastructure, and better distribute value and wealth throughout society remains our company’s focus, and we will continue to fight for the development of our industry to achieve as much alignment around policy and best practices as possible.”

Block.One

Headquartered in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, Block.One is a software publisher which was founded in 2016. They, notably, are the developers of the popular EOS cryptocurrency.

CEO, Brendan Blumer, currently oversees company operations.

In Other News

Various companies have recognized the need for greater clarity, regarding what constitutes a security, with regards to blockchain. This has resulted in the formation of the Crypto Ratings Council. This is a grouping of companies which have developed a framework, meant to assess the likelihood that an asset will be deemed a security by the SEC. With companies such as block.one, Kik, Ripple, and others enduring the wrath of the SEC, this framework is a welcome addition to the sector, moving forward.

‘Crypto Ratings Council’ Formed by Industry Stalwarts

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Joshua Stoner is a multi-faceted working professional. He has a great interest in the revolutionary 'blockchain' technology. In addition to this, he is a licenced Paramedic in Nova Scotia, Canada. As such, he can provide emergency care/medicine to any situation necessitating it.

Regulation

Commissioner Hester Peirce Awarded 2nd Term at SEC

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From now until 2025, the world of blockchain can look forward to at least one friendly face residing at the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Earlier this week, Commissioner Hester Peirce was successfully voted into a subsequent term at the regulatory body.

Senate Approval

The vote, which took place on August 6th, 2020, was completed by the U.S. Senate.  While no outcome is ever assured, this decision had been anticipated for months now, as the initial nomination was put forth six months prior, on February 6th.

A History of Dissent

While there are a variety of reasons that the blockchain and cryptocurrency community have become enamored with Commissioner Peirce – earning her the moniker of ‘Crypto Mom’ – the most obvious is her previous statements of dissent.

A statement of dissent simply refers to the expression of a belief, contrary to those of others, and their actions made.  In the past few years, Commissioner Peirce has voiced her dissent on multiple occasions.

Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust, 2018

The first statement of dissent, issued by Commissioner Peirce, revolved around the denial of a Bitcoin based exchange traded fund (ETF) application in 2018. While the main mandate of the SEC is to protect investors, Commissioner Peirce felt their actions did just the opposite.  She stated, “…I am concerned that the Commission’s approach undermines investor protection by precluding greater institutionalization of the bitcoin market. More institutional participation would ameliorate many of the Commission’s concerns with the bitcoin market that underlie its disapproval order.”

Exchange Traded Funds (ETF), 2020

In early 2020, Commissioner Peirce reiterated her opposing stance regarding cryptocurrencies and ETF type products. In the time between her initial statement on the Winklevoss fund in 2018 and now, the SEC had gone on to deny various applications – essentially doubling down on their stance.  She stated, “…I warned that the Commission’s hesitancy to embrace new products and technologies impedes innovation in this country and threatens to drive entrepreneurs, and the opportunities they create, to other jurisdictions. The Commission’s actions in this area over the past eighteen months confirm these concerns. Meanwhile, investor interest in gaining exposure to bitcoin continues to grow.”

Telegram, 2020

This example is the most recent of the three. Taking place in July of 2020, during a speech at Blockchain Week Singapore, Commissioner Peirce touched on why she thought the SEC’s actions against Telegram were flawed.  While her stance was not divulged in an official statement of dissent, it was clear nonetheless.  She stated, “Telegram chose to end its legal battle by settling with us.  I did not support the settlement because I did not support the underlying action.  I do not support the message that distributing tokens inherently involves a securities transaction.”

Big Plans

While it may be easy to disagree with one’s peers, Commissioner Peirce has ensured that she has provided more than just criticisms.  Most notable is Commissioner Peirce’s ‘Safe Harbor Proposal’.  In the Safe Harbor proposal, companies would benefit from “a three-year grace period within which they could facilitate participation in and the development of a functional or decentralized network, exempted from the registration provisions of the federal securities laws, so long as the conditions are met.”  This is an interesting and important approach; time has proven that while many blockchain based assets may begin their lives as securities, they can later transform into a different class of asset.  One such example is the wildly popular, Ethereum.

Ethereum, which held an ICO early in its lifecycle, has since become a functional decentralized platform and token.  This simple transition, which was always planned, allowed for Ethereum to transform from being a security to simply a token.

By implementing a proposal such as this, innovative and well-intentioned companies would have more leeway to produce next-gen products, without the fear of repercussions from the SEC (providing the companies meet all the conditions).  Commissioner Peirce’s Safe Harbor Proposal can be read in detail here.

New Leadership?

Despite the SEC retaining a familiar face in Commissioner Peirce, the regulatory body may soon look quite different.

Although talk has died down for the moment, current SEC Chairman Jay Clayton is being floated as a candidate for a position as the U.S. Attorney for Southern New York.  If this departure were to occur, Commissioner Peirce would, no doubt, be an exciting prospective replacement for the position of Chairman.

Such a move would, no doubt, be accompanied by differing approaches to blockchain and crypto markets, as Commissioner Peirce has made it clear that she believes the markets are here for the long run.  Time will tell if Commissioner Peirce finds herself filling these shoes.

Securities and Exchange Commission

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), is a U.S. based regulatory body, tasked with ensuring fair and transparent markets.  This is done through the creation, and enforcement, of various laws surrounding the usage of securities.

Chairman, Jay Clayton, currently oversees operations at the SEC.

In Other News

In early 2020, we were fortunate to have completed an exclusive interview with Commissioner Peirce, herself.  In this discussion, we learned more about her approaches to crypto and blockchain, as well as that of the SEC.  For those interested in learning more about Commissioner Peirce, this interview can be found in its entirety, HERE.

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Commissioner Hester Peirce Dissents on SEC Telegram Ruling and Settlement

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Commissioner Hester Peirce Dissents on SEC Telegram Ruling and Settlement

Commissioner Hester M. Peirce of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) delivered a June 21 speech at Blockchain Week in Singapore where she expressed her dissent regarding the recent settlement between the SEC and Telegram.

It is unsurprising to hear Commissioner Peirce disagree with the recent court ruling barring the release of Telegram tokens to all investors, and subsequent settlement with the SEC.  Commissioner Peirce has made it clear that she did not agree with the originating October 2019 emergency order filed by the SEC against Telegram.

Timeline of Telegram Raise and Court Case

February 2018Popular messaging app Telegram raises $850M using the SAFT (Simple Agreement for Future Tokens) structure
March 2018Telegram raises an additional $850M using SAFT structure
October 2019Distribution of Telegram Tokens to Investors scheduled for October 31, 2019
October 2019SEC files an emergency action and temporary restraining order against Telegram to prevent the distribution of Telegram tokens to investors.
March 2020The court orders that Telegram may not distribute tokens to any investor, American and foreign
June 2020Telegram settles with the SEC and agrees to return $1.2Bn to investors, close operations, and pay $18.5M fine

Synopsis of Telegram Raise

  • $1.7Bn raised from investors ($424.5M from American investors)
  • 171 investors (39 Americans)
  • Accredited investors only
  • A minimum investment of $1M per person or entity
  • The invested money was to be used to develop the Telegram Open Network (TON) blockchain and grow and maintain Telegram Messenger.

What Issues Does Commissioner Peirce Raise?

The court sees “one single scheme”. Commissioner Peirce takes issue with the court treating the investment agreement between Telegram and the accredited investors, the delivery of the tokens to the investor, and the resale of the tokens, as one single scheme.  She laments, “gone is the distinction between the investment contract (the agreement between Telegram and the accredited investors) and the token (the asset to be created and delivered under the agreement)”.  Commissioner Peirce believes that the initial investments in the company are to raise capital to build the platform, and that those initial investments are separate from the resale of a functional token “… such tokens, once they have a consumptive use, should be able to be sold to purchasers outside of a securities transaction”.  She believes the Howey test supports the idea that the resale of the tokens does not constitute as a security simply because the tokens were initially acquired as a part of a securities transaction.

What is a requirement for success, is deemed an illegal securities offering by the SEC. What the SEC sees as an illegal securities offering (widespread global distribution of the token), Commissioner Peirce sees as a necessary element for a successful blockchain.  “I do not support the message that distributing tokens inherently involves a securities transaction…. I see [widespread distribution of tokens] as a necessary prerequisite for any successful blockchain network.”

The SEC is overreaching. Commissioner Peirce also takes issue with the fact that the SEC, asked and was granted, enforcement against a corporation that is not incorporated or based in the US, and only a quarter of the investors and total investment were US-based.  She reminds us that the American way is not the only way in a global economy This willingness of the SEC to ask for, and of the district court to grant, such sweeping injunctive relief against a non-US company, in a case where one-quarter of the funds came from US investors, reasonably might raise some concerns among our international colleagues…  we would do well to recall that our way is not the only way.  We should be cautious about asking for remedies that effectively impose our rules beyond our borders.”

At Your Own Risk – No Clear Path

Interestingly, Commissioner Peirce notes that Telegram employed sophisticated counsel, “made good faith efforts to comply with federal securities laws” and “engaged extensively with SEC staff”.  It begs the question – what went wrong?  Did the SEC give improper guidance?  Did Telegram choose not to follow the SEC’s guidance?  Did the SEC change its mind once Telegram was due to distribute tokens to investors?  These questions do not have clear answers and continue to leave companies in risky and unknown waters when conducting token offerings in the United States and/or with American investors.

It is clear that Commissioner Peirce believes that the SEC is not doing enough to help guide companies in the right direction, she notes “rather than provide useful guidance on safety standards and functional braking technology… [leaving] the industry to guess at the path to compliance”.  Companies should not have to assume the risk of guessing at the correct path to compliance.

Who Did the SEC Protect? 

The case of SEC v Telegram Group Inc. and Ton Issuer Inc. was petitioned by three investors; seven investors are listed as interested parties.  All the investors would have had to qualify as “accredited investors” under the federal definition to invest in the Telegram raise.  The minimum threshold for investing in Telegram was USD$1,000,000.

At the end of her speech, Commissioner Peirce asks, “who did we protect by bringing this action?”.  It is a good question – one would assume that an investor with the capital to invest $1M in the Telegram raise is a reasonably sophisticated person or entity that understands the inherent risks of investing in new technology and early stage start-ups.  So, who did the SEC really protect in this case?  It appears that the only people protected were a handful of sophisticated investors who were unhappy with the risk they knowingly took.

Moving Forward

Since 2018 the crypto industry has witnessed a growing trend of companies refusing to accept American investors.  It is likely that this trend of barring American investors will continue until there is clear guidance from the SEC.  Due to the SEC’s enforcement actions and lack of guidance, most companies simply deem it too risky to allow American citizens, residents, or entities to invest in capital (token) raises.

In February of this year, Commissioner Peirce announced her proposal to bridge the gap between regulation and decentralization.  She calls this proposal a safe harbor that gives companies a three-year grace period to develop a functional network.  At the end of the three years, the tokens would not be deemed securities providing there is a functioning network where the token can actively be used for goods and services.  Additional details about Commissioner Peirce’s safe harbor proposal can be found in the link above.

While Commissioner Peirce’s safe harbor proposal is well thought out and appears to be a great way to move forward, unfortunately, it is still simply a proposal.  Given the ongoing refusal of the SEC to provide clear written guidance, rules, or regulation, we do not expect that Commissioner Peirce’s safe harbor will be adopted any time soon by the SEC.  We expect to see other global markets take the lead in decentralized projects if clear guidance or regulations are not set out by the SEC.

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Ontario Securities Commission Alleges Coinsquare Committed Various Securities Violations

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Ontario Securities Commission Alleges Coinsquare Committed Various Securities Violations

The Ontario Securities Commission (OSC), a Canadian regulatory body tasked with ensuring fair and transparent markets, has released a detailed set of allegations against Coinsquare.

In its allegations, the OSC purports that Coinsquare knowingly took part in ‘wash trading’ for an extended period.  In doing so, Coinsquare was knowingly in clear violation of various securities laws.

What is Wash Trading?

Wash trading is an illegal practice that refers to the purposeful manipulation of trading markets, by way of buying and selling shares to artificially inflate the trading volume and pump up the share price.  Trading volume is important to traders, as high-trading volumes typically align with asset liquidity and value.

By taking part in wash trading, the offender is intentionally misleading traders.  Exchanges often choose to do it regardless, as they attempt to attract new business to their platforms.  More volume = greater liquidity = enticing to traders.

While not as prevalent as in past years, wash-trading has unfortunately been a common practice among many cryptocurrency exchanges.  Much of this was due to the unregulated nature of these exchanges in the early days of the industry.

Statement of Allegations, The Details

In its ‘Statement of Allegations’, the OSC provides a detailed breakdown of the various violations by Coinsquare.  In addition to simply wash-trading, the OSC indicates that the practice of wash-trading was well known among those in charge at the company.  More specifically, the OSC names the following individuals as being responsible for the practice.

  • Founder, Virgile Rostand
  • CEO, Cole Diamond
  • CCO, Felix Mazer

If the act of market manipulation was not enough, the OSC also indicates that an employee who brought forward knowledge of the wash trading to company executives was told by those same executives to continue wash trading.  Coinsquare is believed to have then taken reprisal against this employee.

A Timeline, According to the OSC

  • March 2018
    • Cole Diamond orders wash-trading to commence
  • July 2018
    • Coinsquare representatives publicly deny practices on various online forums
  • March 2019
    • Employees raise concerns about wash-trading practice to management
  • December 3, 2019
    • OSC completes unscheduled visit to inspect Coinsquare headquarters
  • December 4, 2019
    • Wash-trading is halted

During the time period when the wash-trading occurred, the OSC states that 90% of Coinsquare’s volume was faked.

Coinsquare

Founded in 2014, Coinsquare is a cryptocurrency exchange, headquartered in Toronto, Ontario.  Through its services, clients can buy/sell, trade, and cash out various cryptocurrencies.

CEO, Cole Diamond, currently oversees company operations.

Ontario Securities Commission

The OSC is a regulatory body based in Ontario, Canada.  The OSC is tasked with ensuring fair and transparent markets for companies and investors by enforcing compliance with the governing rules and regulations.

Grant Vingoe is the current Acting Chair and CEO of the OSC.

In Other News

Coinsquare and QuadrigaCX represented, arguably, the most well-known Canadian cryptocurrency exchanges.  Unfortunately, each has dealt with its own share of controversial issues, with only Coinsquare remaining operational to date.

For those interested in an alternative, the upcoming cryptocurrency trading through WealthSimple has the potential to become a leader in the space.  WealthSimple has developed a positive reputation in its time operating as a financial service provider, and is expected to deliver a polished, and transparent service.  To learn more about this upcoming service, make sure to read our recent article detailing what it will entail.

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This risk is  higher with Cryptocurrencies due to markets being decentralized and non-regulated. You should be aware that you may lose a significant portion of your portfolio.

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