One year ago today, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) published the “DAO Report” which concluded that certain tokens issued in an initial coin offering (“ICO”) were securities under the Supreme Court decision SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. The Report stated that whether an ICO is a security offering will depend on the facts and circumstances, including the economic realities of the transaction. Confusion, private lawsuits, SEC enforcement actions, and even criminal prosecutions ensued, but three courts are about to provide clarity.
In the past year, the U.S Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and Chairman Jay Clayton have repeatedly cautioned the cryptocurrency and initial coin offering (“ICO”) industries about the securities law implications for digital assets. On February 6, 2018, in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, Chairman Clayton notably asserted that “[e]very ICO I’ve seen is a security.”
However, on June 14, 2018, William Hinman, the SEC’s Director of the Division of Corporation Finance, stated that, putting aside the fundraising that accompanied the creation of Ether, “current offers and sales of Ether are not securities transactions.” This statement was based on a novel theory of evolving decentralization that may very well have significant ramifications for cryptocurrency and ICO markets.
Please see our latest K&L Gates HUB article for a discussion about the context and implications for Director Hinman’s conclusions surrounding Ether. It also analyses the specific factors he suggests weighing in determining whether a given digital asset is a security.
On 1 May 2018, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) released its revised Information Sheet 225 which provides an updated guidance on initial coin offerings (ICOs). The updated report expands its scope to include guidance dealing with other crypto-currency and digital token (Crypto-Asset) businesses.
On 26 April 2018, John Price of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) highlighted in a speech that Australian corporate and consumer laws might still apply to ICOs created and offered from overseas, so long as they were offered and sold to Australian consumers. Mr Price warned that there was an incorrect perception that Australian regulations did not apply to activities engaged from overseas.
By Yuki Sako
As a response to the fallout resulting from the hacking of Japanese cryptocurrency exchange Coincheck Inc., which resulted in $530 million worth of digital currencies being stolen, on April 10, 2018, the Financial Services Agency of Japan (FSA) hosted the first meeting of the Study Group on Virtual Currency Exchange Service Providers (Study Group).
By way of background, beginning April 2017, Japan required virtual currency exchange service providers (Virtual Currency Exchange(s)) to be registered with the Japanese authority. Registered Virtual Currency Exchanges are subject to certain operational requirements and conduct regulations such as verification of customers’ identities and customer disclosure.
In a criminal case in Brooklyn, New York, a federal court has been asked to decide for the first time whether tokens or coins issued through an initial coin offering constitute “securities” under U.S. securities laws.
On September 29, 2017 the SEC filed a civil complaint against Maksim Zaslavskiy, alleging that he had committed securities fraud and sold “illegal unregistered securities.” The instruments at issue were tokens that Zaslavskiy allegedly sold to the public through initial coin offerings of his companies RECoin Group Foundation LLC and DRC World, Inc. The lawsuit followed an investigation that apparently took less than 90 days to conduct, and that involved reviewing social media and online postings. The investigation appears to have been conducted parallel with a criminal investigation by the FBI, and a criminal complaint was filed 28 days after the SEC complaint. The SEC case was stayed pending resolution of the criminal case.
By Jim Bulling and Edwin Tan
The Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) has recently provided several comments in relation to entities that are listed or looking to list on the ASX that are involved in cryptocurrency-related businesses, such as developing cryptocurrency tokens, conducting Initial Coin Offerings and operating cryptocurrency exchanges.
By Rizwan Qayyum
The Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (“FINMA”) have published guidelines on initial coin offerings, after receiving numerous requests for guidance from start-ups aiming to launch their own ICO and considering Switzerland as their jurisdiction. Having reviewed the document, its evident that FINMA have aimed to create a regulatory environment which balances the central tenet of consumer protection whilst existing in an ecosystem conducive to innovation. The guidelines can be found here.
FINMA CEO, Mark Branson commented: “The application of blockchain technology has innovative potential within and far beyond the financial markets. However, blockchain-based projects conducted analogously to regulated activities cannot simply circumvent the tried and tested regulatory framework. Our balanced approach to handling ICO projects and enquiries allows legitimate innovators to navigate the regulatory landscape and so launch their projects in a way consistent with our laws protecting investors and the integrity of the financial system”.
FINMA notes that they have identified a sharp increase in the number of ICOs planned or executed in Switzerland, alongside the increased activity relating to enquiries about the current regulatory framework and its applicability.
The French Autorité des Marchés Financiers has recently published a synthesis of the contributions it received in response to its public consultation on Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) to obtain stakeholder views on how these new types of blockchain offerings might be regulated.
The consultation included a presentation of ICOs, a warning on the risks they present, a legal analysis of ICOs with respect to the rules overseen by the AMF and the regulatory options proposed by the AMF. Respondents were invited to give their views on all of these points.
By Rizwan Qayyum
On February 20, Germany’s financial regulator, the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (“BaFin”) published a letter of advice on ICOs. This is the second statement from BaFin on the matter and it provides more substance to how they expect to manage the growing interest in ICOs within Germany.
The letter (an English version is not available at this time) notes that BaFin will conduct a “precise case-by-case examination” of tokens issued via ICOs to determine their legal status and application under current regulations. As such they have stopped short from issuing any sector specific guidance.
The letter is available here