On October 11, 2019, the leaders of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, and Securities and Exchange Commission issued a joint statement to remind businesses that engage in digital asset activities of their anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).

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On September 18, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filed its first civil suit alleging violations of broker-dealer registration requirements in U.S. digital asset markets.  In a case filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the SEC alleged that Defendants ICOBox and its founder, Nikolay Evdokimov, illegally conducted an unregistered public securities offering for their 2017 initial coin offering (“ICO”), and have operated an unregistered brokerage service facilitating the launch of ICOs in digital asset securities since 2017.
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On July 25, 2019, staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) granted its second no-action letter in the digital asset space to Pocketful of Quarters, Inc. (“POQ”), permitting POQ to sell digital tokens (“Quarters”) recorded on the Ethereum blockchain without satisfying registration requirements under the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Acts”). Like the SEC’s prior no-action letter to TurnKey Jet, Inc. (“TKJ”), which permitted TKJ to sell digital tokens pegged to $1.00 for the limited purpose of purchasing air charter services, Quarters will also be sold at a fixed price and limited to a purely consumptive purpose within the Quarters platform.

Due to these similarities, the POQ letter does little to clarify the SEC staff’s most recent guidance, released with the TKJ letter on April 3, 2019, that lists characteristics of a digital token that may affect its classification as a “security” under the Acts (the “Framework”).[1] The POQ letter merely reemphasizes that projects where the platform is already fully developed and the digital asset is subject to extensive restrictions on secondary trading, like TKJ, are more likely to fall outside the scope of federal securities laws.
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On April 3, 2019, staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission released (1) a framework providing principles for analyzing whether a digital asset constitutes an investment contract, and thus a security, as defined in SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. and (2) a no-action letter permitting TurnKey Jet, Inc., without satisfying registration requirements under the Securities

On March 12, the SEC’s Division of Investment Management (“Division”) published a letter from Paul G. Cellupica, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of the Division, to Karen Barr, President and CEO of the Investment Advisor Association, laying out a number of issues under Rule 206(4)-2 (the “Custody Rule”).  The letter included a request for information on possible revisions to the Custody Rule under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 focused on a series of open-ended questions on the intersection between digital assets and the Custody Rule.
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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 December 21, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced settlements with two robo-advisors, Wealthfront Advisers LLC (Wealthfront) and Hedgeable Inc. (Hedgeable), for making false statements about investment products and engaging in misleading advertising in violation of the Investment Advisors Act of 1940 (Act). These settlements mark the SEC’s first enforcement actions against robo-advisors and serve as a reminder that, although technology may change how an investment adviser operates, the SEC expects full compliance with all requirements of the Act.
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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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