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.