By Derek Edward Schloss, Director of Strategy, Security Token Academy
*Author’s Note: The following is not legal advice, but an exploration and possible interpretation of the currently regulatory landscape for blockchain-based fundraising.
As it relates to the explosive blockchain industry, perhaps no theme has been dissected more than that of industry regulation.
On one hand, a number of projects have questioned whether digital assets can thrive in the U.S. without forward-thinking regulation. On the other hand, insiders argue that our regulators are doing their best to follow the laws enacted through the legislative process — really, it’s up to our lawmakers to draw the final boundaries.
The truth is likely somewhere in between.
In the midst of these arguments, the SEC has increased the volume of its “guidance by enforcement” actions, targeting bad-faith fundraisers and ICOs that have consciously ignored the presence of federal securities laws over the last few years. In 2018, the SEC doled out over a dozen enforcement actions involving digital assets and initial coin offerings. And although this year’s numbers aren’t yet available, several high-profile cases are shining light on the regulatory opacity many have criticized.
Of note, the SEC made headlines last quarter when it reached a $24 million settlement with Block.one, the firm behind the EOS blockchain. Block.one had previously sold tokens to fund the development of the EOS network, raising over $4 billion between 2017 and 2018. The SEC argued that a purchaser in the ICO would have had a reasonable expectation of future profit based on Block.one’s efforts, including its development of EOS software and promotion of the EOS blockchain, satisfying the presence of an investment contract under the Howey Test and U.S. federal securities laws. As a result of the offering’s status as a security, the SEC found that Block.one violated securities laws by not filing a registration statement for its initial offering, or qualifying for an exemption from registration.
While the $24 million settlement might appear significant, many in the blockchain community were quick to note that the amount represented less than 1% of the total capital raised during Block.one’s year-long ICO. Further, Block.one announced that the negotiated settlement resolved all ongoing matters between Block.one and the SEC, leading some to question whether the EOS token, which currently trades on exchanges and is used to power the EOS blockchain, no longer falls within the crosshairs of federal securities laws.
One day after the Block.one settlement was announced, the SEC settled with Nebulous over an unregistered token offering that took place in 2014. As part of the settlement, Nebulous did not have to register its Siacoin utility token as a security. Like the EOS token, the Siacoin token currently powers a blockchain network that’s fairly well used by a number of distributed parties (323 hosts in 43 different countries).
Two weeks later, messaging giant Telegram Inc. was sued by the SEC to enjoin the firm from flooding the U.S. capital markets with billions of Grams tokens previously sold to accredited investors. Telegram had raised $1.7 billion selling Gram tokens to over 170 accredited investors under a SAFT framework (Simple Agreement for Future Tokens). Like the intended utility of the EOS and Siacoin tokens, Grams tokens were intended to eventually power the TON network.
Read together, what exactly do these three cases tell us? It’s difficult to decipher. Certainly, we know that Block.one and Nebulous originally offered investment contracts to investors — those events were unquestionably illegal offers of unregistered securities. But reading between the lines, it’s also possible to argue that both project’s utility tokens (EOS tokens and Siacoin tokens) are not securities today, though both trade freely on cryptoasset exchanges.
Telegram’s case is more straightforward — its offering of (future) Grams tokens to investors was also deemed to be an investment contract security by the SEC, but unlike the EOS token, for example, Grams tokens appear to remain securities in the eyes of the regulatory body. As a result, the SEC successfully enjoined Telegram from flooding the U.S. capital markets with Grams tokens.
So how are Grams tokens still securities after their initial sale, while the analysis for EOS and Siacoin tokens more murky? In its emergency action against Telegram, the SEC found that because initial purchasers expected to “reap enormous profits” once the Grams market launched, there still existed an expectation of profit reliant on the future actions of Telegram, Inc. As a result, the SEC articulated that Grams tokens remained investment contract securities, as the prongs of the Howey Test remain satisfied.
As it relates to the EOS token, recall that the SEC’s Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets published in 2019 stated that digital assets previously sold as investment contract securities could be “reevaluated at the time of later offers or sales”. In these situations, if there exists no more “reliance on the effort of others”, nor a “reasonable expectation of profit” as it relates to the investment contract security, then it’s possible the prongs of Howey will not be satisfied, and the investment contract analysis will fail. In these select circumstances, future sales of the digital asset would not be classified as sales of a security.
With this framework in mind, if we attempt to chart a through-line across the three recent SEC actions, one possible (but certainly not definitive) conclusion is that the SEC views the EOS and Sia networks to be sufficiently decentralized as the networks exist today. What factors might play into that analysis? As the SEC’s William Hinman stated in June 2018, and as later codified in the SEC’s Framework in 2019, “if the network on which the token…is sufficiently decentralized — where purchasers would no longer reasonably expect a person or group to carry out essential managerial or entrepreneurial efforts — the assets may not represent an investment contract.” Applying this analysis, it’s plausible that the EOS token could have successfully transitioned from an investment contract at the point of their initial sale into something more akin to a commodity today.
Alternatively, as it relates to Telegram’s TON blockchain, it’s easier to conclude that the SEC believes there still exists a reasonable expectation of profit (held by token holders) enabled by the ongoing role of an active participant (here, Telegram Inc.). As a result, the TON blockchain does not yet meet the minimum threshold for sufficient decentralization. And, without a sufficiently decentralized network, Grams tokens must remain investment contract securities — the form they originally took during the initial offering to investors. There has been no transition under those facts.
Other takeaways? When looking at these three SEC actions together, one could argue that securities laws will always apply to investment contract sales of pre-launched network tokens, regardless of the offering’s form as a SAFT or direct token sale. This fact notwithstanding, the SEC could also be acknowledging the concept of “transitional” securities as a token’s underlying network decentralizes over time.
It’s also possible that these cases can be broadly interpreted as a win for security tokens as an initial fundraising mechanism. If pre-network digital assets must always be offered as investment contracts under federal securities laws, then the token being sold should be placed inside a security token wrapper, and the project’s fundraisers must file a registration statement for the securities offering, or qualify for an exemption from registration. In addition, if a network token aims to transition into a commodity-like digital asset sometime in the future — much like Ether, EOS, or Siacoin tokens — then the token must be imbued with security token transfer restrictions until that event occurs, so that all parties remain in compliance. Security token protocols offer issuers this type of transitional regulatory compliance.
Finally, it’s possible the next wave of digital asset regulation in the U.S. will be more fluid, more accessible, and more open than any of our current legacy constructs. A reading of these cases demonstrates that our U.S. regulators may be evolving their historically rigid interpretations of securities laws to meet this transformative technology head on.
What’s certain is that many questions still remain. For example, while we may have a better conceptual understanding of when sufficient decentralization is satisfied at the network level (Ethereum, EOS, Sia), and when it certainly is not satisfied (Telegram’s TON Blockchain), we still don’t know the exact point at which decentralization is reached during a network’s lifecycle, and as a result, when that network’s underlying token has officially transitioned out of security status.
Maybe that’s for our legislators to decide.
But whether you believe the SEC’s actions represent a loud warning for the industry, or a sign that our regulators are willing to play ball and speak the same language as the digital asset world, it’s undeniable that the increasing clarity provided will ensure the industry’s evolution — in one direction or another.
Japanese Government Introduces New STO Regulations
Japanese regulators officially launched their STO market via amendments to the country’s current securities regulations this week. The new crypto exchange-specific amendments add clarity to the market and introduce a number of important customer protections. As such, analysts predict that the Japanese crypto sector is about to experience rapid expansion.
According to new reports, the amendments will go into effect on May 1. Importantly the changes directly alter the Payment Services Act and the Financial Instruments and Exchange Act. The amendments introduced a variety of new measures ranging from new banking regulations and cold wallet requirements, all the way to, new legal terminology.
Storage Upgrades – STO Regulations
Specifically, the new amendments put new requirements on exchanges. For one, all exchanges must now keep in cold storage an amount equal or greater than the number of users’ funds held online. This regulation ensures that exchanges rely on cold storage whenever possible. Along the same line of thought, exchanges are no longer allowed to keep users’ funds and their funds together. Importantly, this regulation extends across both crypto and fiat reserves.
ICO and STO Amendments
Another important amendment added to the regulations is the legal definitions of initial coin offerings (ICOs) and security token offerings (STOs). For years, blockchain firms struggled to get regulators to clarify the exact differences in terms of regulations. Now, regulators have a clear cut understanding of what type of fundraising campaign is underway, and how to classify it.
Fighting Fake News – STO Regulations
Interestingly, the new amendments go after all forms of market manipulation. There are now stricter fines and punishments in place for spreading rumors or making false statements. This is an important addition as market manipulation is a real concern internationally. Japanese officials hope they can curb these nefarious actors and weed out bad sources of information.
As part of the new enforcement policies, the new regulations place cryptocurrency asset derivatives transactions under the FSA’s jurisdiction. Additionally, there are some terminology changes. Moving forward, cryptoassets and not “cryptocurrencies” is the terminology regulators agreed on.
Importantly, a group of Japan’s top securities firms has been patiently waiting for these regulations to become official. The group includes Monex Group, Rakuten, and one of the largest financial institutions in the country, SBI. In March, the group publicly revealed plans to create a regulated security token exchange.
The group’s wish could have come sooner if the world wasn’t in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the virus has wreaked havoc on the markets and caused multiple delays for regulators. Notably, Japan was even forced to postpone the 2020 Olympics.
Japan STO Market is Here
Despite the dreary state of the international markets, Japan seeks to be the blockchain capital of the region. This determination, coupled with regulators forward-looking stance, is sure to give the country an advantage over the competition. For now, you can expect to see progress as the Japanese STO market is officially active.
XRP Ripple Lawsuit re-filed, but not as a Security?
This week, news broke that an amended complaint against Ripple has been filed by XRP investors. This news is the latest development in a two-year class-action lawsuit brought against the firm. Interestingly, investors chose to amend this lawsuit in order to add protections in the case that XRP doesn’t fall under securities regulations.
Importantly, the amended suit includes former XRP investor Bradley Sostack as the lead plaintiff. In this go-around, the plaintiffs brought additional claims against Ripple and its CEO, Brad Garlinghouse for violation of California business law. The report alleges the company blurred the differences between its enterprise solutions and XRP to further drive demand in the market.
Hedge Your Bets
Originally, the lawsuit alleged that Ripple raised millions of dollars through the unregistered sales of XRP to US retail investors. Now, according to a court document filed on March 25, investors decided to attempt another approach. Perhaps, fearing that XRP could escape securities regulations, the new suit goes after the firm for violations of California business laws.
To this extent, the sixth claim for relief states that the firm participated in false advertising, while a seventh claim, further accuses the firm of unfair competition in violation of California regulations. Also, the claim states that Ripple reportedly limited the supply of XRP to drive price appreciation.
Garlinghouse Under Fire
Specifically, the allegations claim that Garlinghouse made numerous conflicting claims to investors. In multiple instances, he stated that he was holding XRP for long-term gains. However, researchers pointed out that these statements were false. Throughout 2017, Garlinghouse sold millions of XRP via cryptocurrency exchanges. In fact, a review of the XRP ledger indicates that Garlinghouse sold over 67 million XRP in 2017 alone. Additionally, on multiple occasions, he dumped his XRP within days of receiving it from Ripple.
SEC vs Ripple XRP
The lawsuit cites statements made from Ripple about XRP being a utility token essential for international payments. Additionally, the firm and CEO made statements in which they described the cryptocurrency sales are primarily to market makers. This last point could prove to be a major problem for Ripple as 60 percent of XRP is owned by Ripple, and until now, only saw use solely for fundraising efforts.
The Ripple XRP Saga
The XRP securities saga started when a group of disgruntled investors lodged a complaint with the SEC back in 2018. Since that time, the case has seen numerous amendments as both Ripple and the plaintiffs adjusted their strategies. Ripple hoped to get the case dismissed early on, but U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in the Northern District of California ordered in February the suit could proceed to trial.
While the news did seem bleak for Ripple, at that time, Judge Hamilton also stated that the company did not violate California state law. Consequently, both the false advertising and personal liability against Ripple’s CEO Brad Garlinghouse were dropped in that instance.
Now, Ripple worries that the plaintiffs will utilize unlimited amendments to falter the XRP market. Given the new legal approach that the plaintiffs have taken to towards the company, there may be some validity to their concerns.
BSTX Experiences Proposal Delay, as SEC Seeks Further Commentary
The SEC has recently released an update on a proposal put forth in 2019 by the, yet-to-launch, Boston Security Token Exchange (BSTX). Despite being considered since last May, the proposal has been postponed. The purpose of this delay is to allow for public commentary.
This move, delaying the final decision, comes after months of deliberation on the proposal put forth by the BTSX. From the time of the initial filing, we have covered developments surrounding the BSTX on multiple occasions. The following articles shed light on this timeline, and what the BSTX is trying to achieve.
While not all-encompassing, the following are a few of the key points put forth by the BSTX in their proposal for change.
- Asset ownership recorded using a private blockchain
- Trading enabled through use of BSTX tokens
- Whitelisted Clients
In their most recent extension, the SEC noted that it was done in hopes that the public would come forth, and share their stances towards the proposal. They stated,
“The Commission requests that interested persons provide written submissions of their views, data, and arguments with respect to the issues identified above, as well as any other concerns they may have with the proposal.”
Presumably, what prompted this delay is multiple responses received during the first commentary period. While there were only two received, each expressed trepidation towards what the BSTX is trying to achieve.
Of the two responses received, thus far, one was received by a representative of Nasdaq. It is stated,
“Nasdaq respectfully submits that the BOX proposal may place an unreasonable burden on competition because the blockchain (ledger) technology used to track ownership of the security token—the only aspect of this instrument that is unique—would not have a common distributed ledger. Rather, the distributed ledger would be exclusively available on BOX, thereby placing other exchanges at a competitive disadvantage that cannot be remedied by replicating the blockchain offering. Furthermore, the proposal appears to provide insufficient detail regarding: (1) digital securities infrastructure and technology pairing with the existing equities market infrastructure, and (2) its impact on the anti-fraud and customer protection provisions of the Act, as well as possible investor confusion. Nasdaq recommends that BOX submit additional detail addressing these concerns before the proposal is approved.”
Simply put, they break down their issues into two main points:
- ‘The Proposal places an unreasonable burden on competition’
- ‘The Proposal provides insufficient information to assess compliance with the Act or the costs to market participants.’
The commentary, put forth by Nasdaq, closes with a request for more information, stating,
“For the reasons described above, Nasdaq believes that BOX has provided insufficient information concerning the proposal’s impact on competition, how it complies with other aspects of the Exchange Act and Anti-Money Laundering statutes, and how BOX intends to avoid investor confusion. Nasdaq recommends that BOX submit additional detail addressing these concerns before the proposal is approved.”
Boston Security Token Exchange (BSTX)
Founded in 2018, the BSTX is a joint venture between BOX Digital, and tZERO. The goal of the BSTX is to establish a regulated and full-fledged exchange, which offers support for digital securities.
CEO, Lisa Fall, currently oversees company operations.