In May 2019, the UK Jurisdiction Taskforce (the “UKJT”) of the LawTech Delivery Panel published its public consultation paper on the status of cryptoassets and distributed ledger technology, as well as the enforceability of smart contracts, under English private law. While much of the literature around cryptoassets in the legal context has been centred on their regulation, the UKJT’s consultation paper focuses on the legal characterization of these instruments themselves. In this article, we consider how cryptoassets can be defined using the existing vocabulary of English private law and the implications of this characterization.
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On April 11, 2019, the French parliament adopted a law (the “Loi Pacte”or “Law”)[1] that establishes a new regulatory framework for initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) of blockchain based tokens by entities established or registered in France.  At the heart of the Law’s ICO provisions is an innovative framework that will allow issuers to request an optional visa from the French Financial Markets Authority (the “AMF”) prior to undertaking an ICO.  ICOs of tokens that are not financial instruments will still be permitted without a visa, but the expectation is that issuers obtaining the visa for an offering of such tokens will have a distinct advantage relative to offers that lack such approval.  ICO issuers that do not obtain a visa also will be subject to restrictions on certain kinds of advertising and sales methods.  By “white-listing” issuers serious enough to seek and obtain an AMF visa, France hopes to give investors a new tool for screening out potentially fraudulent offers and help ICO issuers establish the investor confidence necessary to secure funding.  Many of the details of the new framework will be specified in implementing regulations to be adopted by the AMF, which are expected to be issued shortly after the Law is officially promulgated.  The AMF published an overview of its planned regulations on April 15, 2019, providing further clarity on how the regime will work in practice.[2]
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On February 26, 2019, Steven Maijoor, the Chair of the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), delivered a keynote speech to the 3rd Annual FinTech and Regulation conference in Brussels.  In his speech, he highlighted ESMA’s recent initiatives in the crypto-asset and distributed ledger technology (DLT) space and noted ongoing areas of focus.
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On February 20, the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC” or “Commission”) issued a cease-and-desist order against Gladius Network LLC (“Gladius”) concerning its 2017 initial coin offering (“ICO”).  The SEC found that the Gladius ICO violated the Securities Act of 1933’s (“Securities Act”) prohibition against the public offer or sale of any securities not made pursuant to either an effective registration statement on file with the SEC or under an exemption from registration.[1]  While this is far from the first time that the SEC has found that a particular ICO token meets the definition of a “security” under the Securities Act,[2] this is notably the first action involving an ICO token issuer that self-reported its potential violation.  Due to this, and Gladius’s cooperation throughout the investigation, the SEC stopped short of imposing any civil monetary penalties among its ordered remedial measures.
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On November 16, 2018, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) Division of Corporation Finance (“Corp. Fin.”), Division of Investment Management, and Division of Trading and Markets issued a joint public statement on “Digital Asset Securities Issuance and Trading.”  The public statement is the latest in the Divisions’—and the Commission’s—steady efforts to publicly outline and develop its analysis on the application of the federal securities laws to initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) and certain digital tokens.  These efforts have combined a series of enforcement proceedings with public statements by Chairman Jay Clayton and staff, including a more detailed statement of the SEC’s analytical approach in Corp. Fin. Director William Hinman’s speech on digital assets in June 2018.
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On November 8, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) imposed a cease-and-desist order against Zachary Coburn for causing his former company, EtherDelta, to operate as an unregistered securities exchange in violation of Section 5 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”).  Notably, EtherDelta, a trading platform specializing in digital assets known as Ether and ERC20 tokens,[1] was not operated like a traditional exchange with centralized operations, as there was no ongoing, active management of the platform’s order taking and execution functions. Instead, EtherDelta was “decentralized,” in that it connected buyers and sellers through a pre-established smart contract protocol upon which all operational decisions were carried out.

In the SEC’s view, EtherDelta met Exchange Act Rule 3b-16(a)’s definition of an exchange notwithstanding the lack of ongoing centralized management of order taking and execution.  Robert Cohen, the Chief of the SEC’s Cyber Unit within the Division of Enforcement stated after the order’s release, “The focus is not on the label you put on something . . . The focus is on the function . . . whether it’s decentralized or not, whether it’s on a smart contract or not, what matters is it’s an exchange.” This functional approach echoes prior SEC guidance and enforcement actions in the digital asset securities markets in emphasizing that the Commission will look to the substance and not the form of a market participants’ operations in evaluating their effective compliance with U.S. securities laws.
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Over the past year, the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has increasingly scrutinized initial coin offerings (“ICO”) and certain digital assets.  On September 20, 2018, the SEC’s Enforcement Division co-Director, Stephanie Avakian, gave a speech in which she addressed the Division’s approach to dealing with these new forms of tradeable assets.  This speech came only days after the SEC settled its first case charging an unregistered broker-dealer for facilitating the sale of digital tokens from several ICOs since the 2017 DAO Report.  In her speech, Avakian provided three key insights into the Division’s enforcement strategy.
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On September 11, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) each separately initiated their first enforcement action for violations of broker-dealer regulatory requirements under U.S. securities laws in digital asset markets. These actions echo all prior agency actions and alerts indicating that where a “security” is involved, both agencies will expect digital asset market participants to fully comply with U.S. securities laws. Additionally, they serve as a serious reminder to all persons acting as “brokers”[1] or “dealers”[2] (together, “broker-dealers”) that just because digital asset securities are unconventional securities with unconventional compliance challenges does not mean that either the SEC or FINRA will lower its compliance expectations.
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On Thursday, June 14th, the SEC Director of Corporation Finance, William Hinman, stated his view that current secondary market trades of Ether are not now securities transactions as part of a speech on the treatment of digital assets under the securities laws.  While he expressly set aside the question of whether the capital-raising that initially accompanied the sale of Ether in 2014 was a securities offering, he confirmed previous suggestions that Ether is a prime example of a digital asset that may once have been offered as a security, but is now “something else” that is not  regulated by the securities laws.  While Hinman’s views are not binding on the Commission, his remarks strongly suggest the Commission’s willingness to consider whether certain digital assets that may be initially offered as securities over time can later lose their status as securities—a view that is shared by at least one CFTC commissioner. 
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On March 27, 2018, Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin announced that the state had ordered five firms to halt initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) on the grounds that the ICOs constituted unregistered offerings of securities but made no allegations of fraud.  These orders follow a growing line of state enforcement actions aimed at ICOs.

This was not Massachusetts’s first foray into regulating ICOs.  On January 17, 2018 the state filed a complaint alleging violations of securities and broker-dealer registration requirements against the company Caviar and its founder for an ICO that sought to create a “pooled investment fund with hedged exposure to crypto-assets and real estate debt.”


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