Tag Archives: digital asset regulation

Cole-Frieman & Mallon 2019 Third Quarter Update

Below is our quarterly newsletter. If you would like to be added to our distribution list, please contact us.

Clients, Friends, Associates:

We hope you had an enjoyable summer. Typically, the third quarter is quieter than the second quarter from a compliance perspective, however we continue to see meaningful enforcement actions taken by regulatory authorities and rapid developments in the digital asset space. Entering the fourth quarter, we would like to highlight some items we hope will help you stay on top of the business and regulatory landscape in the coming months.  But first, a couple of items of firm news:

  • CoinAlts Fund Symposium. In September, In September, founding sponsor CFM broke new ground to host its fourth successful Symposium in Chicago. An impressive line-up of speakers addressed pressing issues for institutions in the digital asset ecosystem, including legal and operational concerns for fund managers, recent trends and innovations in blockchain, and raising capital from institutional allocators.
    • Cole-Frieman & Mallon’s Anniversary. On September 17th CFM celebrated with family, friends, colleagues and clients 10 years of successful growth to become the largest hedge fund practice in the West Coast. We very much appreciate the continued support from our clients and friends in the industry and look forward to the next decade of success.

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Privacy Regulations

Cayman Islands Data Protection Law Effective September 30, 2019. The Cayman Islands Data Protection Law, 2017 (“DPL”) became effective on September 30, 2019 and applies to all investment advisers providing investment advice to Cayman Islands funds. Under the DPL, Cayman investment funds are considered “data controllers” whether or not they are registered with the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority and investment advisers to such funds are considered “data processors.” The DPL requires data controllers to update their Cayman fund’s subscription agreements to include language specific to the DPL and otherwise provide investors with an updated DPL-compliant privacy notice. There is no specific deadline to provide investors with such privacy notice. Fund administrators must also ensure that they are DPL-compliant and updates to the fund’s administration agreement may be required.

California Consumer Privacy Act to be Effective January 1, 2020. The California Consumer Privacy Act (the “Act”) was passed into California law on June 28, 2018 and will be effective on January 1, 2020. The Act will not apply to most fund managers and will generally only impact managers that serve California residents and have at least $25 million in annual gross revenue, have personal data on at least 50,000 Californians, or receive over half their revenues from the sale of personal data of California residents. The Act does not apply to current client data and, on October 11, 2019, Governor Newsom signed seven amendments into law that generally limit the Act’s reach even further. If the Act were to apply to a fund manager, to be in compliance, such fund manager should post a privacy policy on its website disclosing its collection of personal information, maintain an organized data collection process, and provide investors information regarding the use of their information and the right to opt-out of the sale and request the deletion of such information.

New York SHIELD Act Heightens the State’s Privacy Regulations. On July 25, 2019, the Stop Hacks and Improve Electronic Data Security Act (the “SHIELD Act”) was signed into New York law and amends the State’s data breach notification law. The SHIELD Act, which is set to take effect in March 2020, requires certain businesses or individuals implement safeguards to protect the security, confidentiality and integrity of information. The SHIELD Act broadens the definition of “private information” to include credit card or debit card numbers, usernames and passwords (or security questions and answers) used to access an individual’s online accounts, and biometric information, like fingerprints. The SHIELD Act also expands the definition of “breach”, from unauthorized acquisition of private information to include unauthorized access to private information, as well as the scope of the breach notification requirement to include any person or business that owns or licenses private information of a New York resident. This means the law is no longer limited to those conducting business in New York, but could affect managers who, for example, only store a New York investor’s private information. Because of the broad scope of the SHIELD Act, managers who own private information of a New York resident should review the updated security requirements the Act imposes on them, including the need to implement a data security program, as more specifically discussed in the SHIELD Act.

SEC Matters

SEC Publishes Risk Alert on Principal and Agency Cross Trading Compliance Issues. On September 4, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) published a Risk Alert advising readers on common compliance issues identified in investment adviser examinations, related to principal and agency cross transactions under Section 206(3) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, as amended (the “Advisers Act”). These transactions occur when investment advisers execute client transactions as a broker or dealer, either acting as a broker or dealer for its advisory client or doing so for both its advisory client and its brokerage client on the other end of the same transaction. The examinations the SEC conducted showed advisers either did not know they had engaged in principal trades or did not disclose or obtain the required consent before completing the transactions. With respect to agency cross transactions, the examinations also showed advisers often engaged in agency cross transactions without properly disclosing this to clients or could not show proof they had complied with the applicable consent or disclosure requirements. The Risk Alert also expressed concern that many advisers engaging in these transactions either did not have proper compliance policies and procedures or failed to follow the policies and procedures that had been established. Advisers should look closely at potential transactions to determine whether they qualify as either principal trades or agency cross transactions and if so, what actions need to be taken to comply with the respective requirements.

SEC Charged RIA for Nondisclosure of Conflicts Arising from Revenue Sharing. On August 1, 2019, the SEC  charged an SEC RIA for failure to disclose conflicts of interest relating to a revenue sharing agreement with the broker used by most of its clients. The revenue sharing agreement provided that, if the adviser invested its client assets in certain classes of mutual funds that paid the broker to be listed on its platform, the adviser would receive a portion of those payments. The adviser received over $100 million from the broker from July 2014 to December 2018 because of this arrangement. However, the adviser never disclosed to its clients that there were other mutual fund investments less expensive than the investments subject to the revenue sharing agreement. The SEC considered these to be material omissions and determined the adviser’s clients did not make these investments with full knowledge of the adviser’s incentives. Fund managers should ensure that all pertinent conflicts of interest, including those related to the receipt of compensation from third parties, are properly disclosed to their clients.

FINRA Matters

FINRA Proposes Changes to Restricted Person and Spinning Provisions.  On July 26, 2019, FINRA, along with the SEC, proposed certain amendments to FINRA Rules 5130 and 5131. One of the amendments would exempt certain additional persons and certain types of offerings from the scope of the rules. Among other changes (eight total), the proposals would (i) include the definitions of “family member” and “family client” as defined under the Advisers Act in the definition of “family investment vehicle” under Rule 5130, (ii) exempt foreign employee retirement benefit plans that meet certain conditions from Rules 5130 and 5131 and (iii) exclude unaffiliated charitable organizations from the definition of “covered non-public company” in Rule 5131. If these changes are approved and become effective, fund managers can expect further regulatory consistency and clarity to result.

Digital Asset Matters

Bakkt Announces that it’s “Cleared to Launch” Bitcoin Futures. Bakkt, a bitcoin futures exchange and digital assets platform founded by the Intercontinental Exchange (“ICE”), announced in mid-August that the CFTC gave its go-ahead for Bakkt’s futures contracts. The announcement discussed that Bakkt’s bitcoin futures would be exchange-traded on ICE Futures U.S. and cleared on ICE Clear US, both of which are regulated by the CFTC. Bakkt further announced that it acquired a New York state trust charter through the New York State Department of Financial Services, and that this approval to create Bakkt Trust Company, a qualified custodian, would allow the Bakkt Warehouse, which is part of Bakkt Trust Company, to provide bitcoin custodial services for physically delivered futures. On September 23, 2019, Bakkt launched its custody and physically-settled bitcoin futures contracts products. Many disagree whether the launch, which had a trade volume during the first seven days of $5.8 million, was successful or not, and certain researchers speculate the launch was partially why bitcoin’s price has recently decreased. Despite this, the news of the launch can potentially benefit fund managers as Bakkt aims to provide access to this market and address issues that have slowed institutional participation in this market in the past.

SEC Delays Decision on Three Bitcoin ETFs. On August 12, 2019, the SEC once again delayed a decision on three bitcoin ETF proposals.  As of yet, the SEC has not approved a bitcoin ETF. In previous decisions, the SEC expressed concerns with market manipulation, market surveillance and a possible divergence with futures trading. One of the entities proposing a bitcoin ETF published reports addressing these concerns and indicating that the actual bitcoin market is more regulated and surveilled than expected. This ETF proposal received support from a number of well-known individuals in the industry. In fact, Cole-Frieman & Mallon submitted a comment to the SEC with respect to this ETF proposal in June. Unfortunately, on October 9, 2019, this ETF proposal was rejected as the proposal reportedly did not meet the legal requirements necessary to prevent market manipulation or other fraudulent activities. As another of the entities proposing a bitcoin ETF recently withdrew its proposal from SEC review, there remains only one bitcoin ETF proposal sitting before the SEC. Fund managers interested in the digital asset space should stay apprised of future developments regarding this ETF proposal and others that may follow.

FINRA Approves Membership of Placement Agent for Privately Placed Digital Securities. On August 7, 2019, FINRA approved the membership application of a placement agent for privately placed, digital securities on a permissioned blockchain platform developed by its parent company. It took the placement agent 18 months to get approved, which is longer than what is typically seen, as it had to prove to FINRA that it met regulatory requirements. The approval allows the placement agent to issue securities, provide services as a broker for digital securities, and potentially enter the secondary trading business. This approval stands out as many applications have been waiting to hear back from FINRA for months, and sometimes more than a year. Specifically, this approval will expand investment opportunities for investors and provide fund managers with a streamlined tool to utilize in its investment processes.

SEC Freezes $8 Million in Assets Related to Fraudulent Scheme to Sell Digital Securities to Investors. On August 12, 2019, the SEC froze $8 million in assets raised by an individual and two companies he owns. Allegedly, the parties sold their own token on the internet and induced investors to invest in the token based on material misrepresentations and omissions. The complaint also alleged that the individual manipulated the token price and transferred a significant amount of investor assets to his own personal account. The SEC charged the parties with violating the registration and antifraud provisions of the Federal securities laws and further charged the individual for violating antifraud provisions by manipulating the price of tokens. While this digital asset age has certainly shown promise and innovation, fund managers should be on alert for fraudulent schemes such as this.

SEC Charges Group Operating Unregistered Digital Asset Exchange. On August 29, 2019, the SEC settled charges with a company and its founders who created and sold unregistered tokens to more than 13,000 investors. The founders allegedly falsely claimed each token provided an interest in the company’s cryptocurrency mining facility using below-market rate electricity. In reality, the mining facility did not exist. The company and its founders also allegedly illegally operated an unregistered national security exchange to trade the single token. As new and exciting opportunities in the digital asset space continue to emerge, investors should proceed with caution and should conduct ample due diligence prior to moving forward with such opportunities.

IRS Targets Cryptocurrency Investors with Educational Letter about Back Taxes. In July, the IRS began sending educational letters to taxpayers who have purchased or sold cryptocurrencies but either did not report the income entirely or did not report the income correctly. There are three variations of this letter that more than 10,000 taxpayers will receive, depending on how or if the transactions were reported: Letter 6173, 6174 and 6174-A. In mid-August, the IRS began sending a second round of letters to relevant taxpayers. This notice, which the IRS calls CP2000, is aimed at taxpayers that the IRS has actual records of, showing that there is a discrepancy between the trading profits or losses reported by the taxpayer and what third parties (like exchanges) report to the IRS. The notice includes an amount that each recipient taxpayer is expected to pay in 30 days, with interest. Taxpayers trading cryptocurrency can expect the IRS to ramp up these types of letters and notices and should properly report their transactions to the IRS when filing tax returns to avoid penalties.

SEC Approves First-Ever Reg A+ Token Offering. On July 12, 2019, Blockstack became the first company in history to receive SEC approval for a public securities offering where investors would receive tokens, in this case, called “Stacks”. Blockstack raised a total of $23 million from more than 4,500 investors. $15.5 million was raised through a Reg A+ sale in the United States and the other $7.6 million was raised through a Reg S offering in Asia. Blockstack is working with international exchanges to list Stacks tokens potentially as soon as October 2019. While the full effects of this approval are not yet determined, the SEC’s approval has potential to create a new regulatory roadmap for public token offerings.

FINRA and SEC Issue Joint Statement on Custody of Digital Assets by Broker-Dealers. On July 8, 2019, FINRA and the SEC issued a statement expressing the challenges facing broker-dealer’s custody of digital assets. The statement discussed that a broker-dealer seeking to custody such assets must, like all broker-dealers, comply with the SEC’s Customer Protection Rule. This rule protects customer securities and funds held by broker-dealers by requiring broker-dealers to keep customer assets separate from their firm’s assets, making it more likely that customers’ securities and assets can be returned to them in the case of a broker-dealer’s failure. Many unregistered entities and registered broker-dealers that want to engage in activities involving digital asset securities have been submitting applications to FINRA in the hope that FINRA will allow them to engage in such activities. How these entities could custody digital asset securities while complying with the Customer Protection Rule is still under discussion, but as a start, broker-dealers would need to put in place significant technological enhancements unique to digital asset securities.

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Compliance Calendar.

Please note the following important dates as you plan your regulatory compliance timeline for the coming months:

Deadline Filing
October 10, 2019 Form 13H amendment due if there were changes during Q3
October 15, 2019 Quarterly Form PF due for Large Liquidity Fund Advisers
October 15, 2019 Extended deadline to file Reports of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR)
October 30, 2019 Registered investment advisers must collect access persons’ personal securities transactions
November 1, 2019 Registered investment advisers that seek to withdraw registration with the SEC may begin to submit Form ADV-W‘s, which must be dated 12/31/19
November 11, 2019 Firm may view, print and pay preliminary notice filings (RIA) with all appropriate states
November 14, 2019 Form 13F is due for certain institutional investment managers
November 14, 2019 Form PR filings for registered CTAs that msut file for Q3 within 45 days of the end of Q3 2019
November 29, 2019 Form PF filings for Large Hedge Fund Advisers with December 31 fiscal year-ends filing
November 29, 2019 Large registered CPOs must submit a pool quarterly report (CPO-PQR)
December 16, 2019 Deadline for paying annual IARD charges and state renewal fees
December 31, 2019 Small and mid-sized registered CPOs must submit a pool quarterly report (CPO-PQR)
December 31, 2019 Cayman funds regulated by CIMA that intend to de-register (i.e. wind down or continue as an exempted fund) should do so before this date in order to avoid 2020 CIMA fees
January 1, 2020 California Consumer Privacy Act goes into effect
Periodic Fund managers should perform “Bad Actor” certifications annually
Periodic Amendment due on or before anniversary date of prior Form D and blue sky filing(s), as applicable, or for material changes
Periodic CPO/CTA Annual Questionnaires must be submitted annually, and promptly upon material information changes

 

Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP.  Mr. Mallon can be reached directly at 415-868-5345.

Digital Asset Regulatory Items – Third Quarter 2018

The third quarter of 2018 saw increased interest from regulators in the digital asset space, as well as enforcement actions. For your convenience, we have provided an overview of key items from the quarter below.

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SEC MATTERS

Enforcement

SEC Charges Digital Asset Hedge Fund Manager

On September 11, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced the settlement of charges against a digital asset hedge fund and its manager. The charges included misleading investors, offering and selling unregistered securities, and failing to register the hedge fund as an investment company. The manager marketed the fund as the “first regulated crypto asset fund in the United States” and claimed the fund had filed registration statements with the SEC. Based on investments in “digital assets that were investment securities”, the fund was required to register as an investment company with the SEC. However, the fund was not registered and did not meet any exemptions or exclusions from the investment company registration requirements. The settlement included cease-and-desist orders, censure, investor rescission offers, and a $200,000 penalty. This is the first action the SEC has taken against a digital asset fund based on violations of the investment company registration requirements.

SEC Charges ICO Platform for Operating as Unregistered Broker-Dealer

On September 11, the SEC settled charges against an initial coin offering (“ICO”) platform. The business and its principals were charged with failing to register as broker-dealers and selling unregistered securities. This is the SEC’s first charge against an unregistered broker-dealer in the digital asset space following the SEC’s 2017 DAO Report, which cautioned anyone offering or selling digital assets to comply with federal securities laws such as broker-dealer registration requirements. The business agreed to pay $471,000 plus prejudgment interest, and the principals each agreed to a three-year bar from certain investment-related activities and $45,000 in penalties.

SEC Fines and Halts Fraudulent ICO

On August 14, the SEC settled charges related to an ICO. The token issuer was charged with fraud and the sale of unregistered securities after it claimed the proceeds from its ICO would be used to fund oil drilling in California. However, the issuer falsely represented that it had the necessary drilling lease and misled investors about the potential for profit and the prior bankruptcy and criminal history of the issuer’s principal. The settlement included permanent cease and desist orders, a permanent bar from certain investment-related activities, and a $30,000 fine. In light of recent charges like this, fund managers investing in ICOs should ensure they complete adequate due diligence on investment opportunities.

Other

SEC Denies and Delays Bitcoin ETFs

On August 22, the SEC released three separate orders denying nine Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (“ETF”) proposals. These orders followed the SEC’s July 26 denial of another Bitcoin ETF. The SEC’s reasoning in these denials was mainly based on a concern that the price of Bitcoin may be susceptible to manipulation. However, on September 20, the SEC announced that it has begun a formal review for a physically-backed Bitcoin ETF. The acceptance of such an ETF would increase digital asset investment options and has the potential to promote the overall growth of the industry.

SEC Suspends Trading of Swedish Bitcoin Instruments

On September 9, the SEC temporarily suspended trading of two foreign cryptocurrency investment instruments commonly known as the “Swedish Bitcoin ETFs”. The instruments hold Bitcoin on behalf of shareholders and, prior to the suspension, had been tradable in U.S. brokerage accounts. The SEC suspended the ETFs out of a concern for investor confusion, which was likely based on inconsistent representations. The issuers’ broker-dealer applications referred to the instruments as ETFs, other sources characterized them as exchange-traded notes, and the issuers’ offering memoranda described them as “non-equity linked certificates”. With this suspension in mind, fund managers considering investing in novel digital asset instruments should ensure they understand the nature of the instruments.

CFTC MATTERS

Investor Alerts

CFTC Stresses Due Diligence in ICO Investments

On July 16, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) published an alert cautioning investors to conduct extensive research before investing in any ICO, especially those that claim to be utility tokens (i.e. non-securities). The alert includes factors that investors should consider before investing in a token offering, such as the potential for forks, mining costs, liquidity, and risk of hacks.

Enforcement

Court Enters Final Order for CFTC Charges Against Crypto Company

On August 23, a New York federal court entered final judgment against a digital asset company based on charges brought by the CFTC. The company claimed that, in exchange for sending digital assets, customers could receive expert crypto trading advice or have the company trade on their behalf. However, no such expert advice or trading services were provided. The company was charged with fraud and the final judgment included a permanent injunction from certain investment-related activities, more than $290,000 in restitution, more than $871,000 in civil penalties, and post-judgment interest.

NFA MATTERS

NFA Requires CPOs and CTAs to Disclose Digital Asset Activity

On July 20, the National Futures Association (“NFA”) released a notice that imposed new disclosure requirements on futures commission merchants, commodity pool operators (“CPOs”), and commodity trading advisers (“CTAs”) engaged in digital asset activity. Specific to CPOs and CTAs, the NFA is now requiring discussion of certain aspects of digital asset investing, such as volatility, liquidity, and cybersecurity, as well as the inclusion of certain standardized disclosures. Additional details are available in our recent blog post.

FINRA MATTERS

FINRA Charges Broker with Fraud and Unlawful Distribution for Token Offering

On September 11, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) charged a broker in connection with a token offering. The broker attempted to raise money through the offering for an allegedly worthless public company and, in the process, misled investors about the company’s operations and finances. The broker is charged with making material misrepresentations, offering and selling unregistered securities, and failing to notify the broker’s firm about the transactions. This is FINRA’s first disciplinary action involving digital assets.

FEDERAL LEGISLATION

Congressional Representative Introduces Crypto-Friendly Bills

On September 21, Minnesota Congressional Representative Tom Emmer announced three crypto-friendly bills. The first bill would codify an overall “light touch, consistent, and simple” approach to digital asset regulation. The second bill would provide a safe harbor for certain businesses that lack control over consumer funds by exempting them from certain regulations, such as money transmitter licensing requirements. Lastly, the third bill would limit fines for taxpayers that failed to fully report forked digital assets until the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) provides further guidance on how such forks should be reported.

STATE MATTERS

New York

New York Attorney General Releases Report on Digital Asset Exchanges

On September 18, the Office of the Attorney General of New York (the “OAG”) released a report summarizing a crypto exchange fact-finding initiative. The report outlines three primary areas of concern:

  • Conflicts of Interest – Crypto exchanges are exposed to potential conflicts of interest in several ways. For example, exchanges often have additional lines of business (e.g. broker-dealer) that would either be prohibited or carefully monitored in traditional securities contexts. Additionally, employees may have access to non-public information, and may hold and trade digital assets on their employer’s or competitors’ exchanges. Some exchanges also lack standards for determining which tokens are listed, and the possibility that an exchange may take fees for such a listing create a potential conflict of interest.
  • Lack of Anti-Abuse Efforts – Digital asset exchanges have not consistently implemented safeguards to protect the integrity of their platforms. Such safeguards include monitoring real-time and past trades, and restricting the use of bots. Additionally, some exchanges engage in proprietary trading (i.e. trading from the exchange’s own account in order to, for example, promote market liquidity) which may expose users to price manipulation or other abuse.
  • Limited Customer Funds Protections – Exchanges lack a consistent and transparent approach to auditing the digital assets they hold. Additionally, several exchanges do not have independent audits completed. These shortcomings make it difficult to determine whether crypto exchanges adequately maintain and protect customers’ assets. The OAG also raised concerns over whether exchanges have adequate protection against hacks and maintain sufficient insurance policies.

Digital asset fund managers should keep these concerns in mind and ensure they properly vet exchanges they may utilize.

Court Rules ICO Tokens May Be Subject to Securities Laws

On September 11, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that a criminal case brought against the individual behind two ICOs can proceed to trial. The defendant faces conspiracy and securities fraud charges for allegedly making false claims that the tokens sold in the ICOs were backed by real estate and diamonds. The defendant moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that securities laws are too vague to apply to ICOs, and that the issued tokens were not securities. The issue of whether the tokens in question are securities may now ultimately be decided by a jury.

Texas

Texas Issues Emergency Cease and Desists Against Crypto Investment Scheme

On September 18, the Securities Commissioner of Texas (the “Commissioner”) released three orders related to digital asset investment schemes. First, the Commissioner issued a cease and desist order against a mining company that used promotional materials falsely implying third-party endorsements and associations. Second, the Commissioner issued a cease and desist order against a company that solicited investments to develop a biometric token wallet. The business misled investors with a video of former President Barack Obama that falsely implied he was discussing the company. The business also made unsubstantiated claims, for example, that it was backed by “a leading financial institution”. Lastly, the Commissioner issued a cease and desist order against a company that solicited investments for its crypto and forex trading programs. The company told investors they could earn 10x returns, that those returns were guaranteed, and that there was no investment risk. All orders allege that the companies violated securities laws by offering and selling unregistered securities, engaging in fraud, and making materially misleading statements. These orders further highlight the need for fund managers to conduct due diligence on digital asset investment opportunities.

OTHER MATTERS

Statements

Congressional Representatives Urge IRS to Provide Guidance on Cryptocurrency

On September 19, five members of the House of Representatives published a letter urging the IRS to issue updated guidance on digital asset taxation. The last major guidance from the IRS, Notice 2014-21, was issued in March 2014. Since then, the IRS has increased digital asset scrutiny by, for example, requesting transaction records from crypto exchanges and choosing not to provide leniency through a voluntary crypto disclosure program. Such guidance would hopefully resolve some of the tax uncertainties digital asset fund managers currently face.

NASAA Announces Coordinated Digital Asset Investigations

On August 28, the North American Securities Administrators Association (“NASAA”) announced that regulators in the U.S. and Canada are engaged in more than 200 digital asset-related investigations as part of a coordinated NASAA initiative known as “Operation Cryptosweep”. While investigations have focused on suspected securities fraud, regulators have uncovered other violations, such as the offer and sale of unregistered securities. The initiative has resulted in at least 46 enforcement actions related to ICOs or digital asset investment products.

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first digital currency-focused hedge funds and works routinely on matters affecting the digital asset industry. Mr. Mallon can be reached directly at 415-868-5345

Airdrops and Securities Laws

Legal Issues Surrounding Digital Asset Airdrops

Given the regulatory scrutiny on initial coin offerings, many digital asset company sponsors (those launching an ICO token/product/security/utility/etc) have been looking for ways to get their assets in the hands of a large number of people to begin creating network effects so the digital asset become valuable.  One way to accomplish this is through an “airdrop” where the sponsor gives away the digital asset to certain persons under certain circumstances.  Airdrops come in many shapes and forms – in some, the sponsor deposits only the digital asset they have created and in others a sponsor or other third party might deposit a variety of digital assets created by different groups.  Some airdrops require users to do something (sign up for a list or tweet a link related to the sponsor) and some are done for “free”.  In any event, there are potentially securities laws issues related to the airdrops and any transactions in the digital asset after the airdrop.  The below analysis is intended as a broad overview, but each airdrop should be considered in light of its facts and circumstances.  Additionally, the regulation of airdrops, including how they may be taxed, is beginning to evolve and subject to change.

Potential Application of Securities Laws to Airdrops

The legal status of digital assets is uncertain and continually developing – whether a token is a security ultimately depends on the particulars of each token.  Given recent statements by the SEC, however, it is safest to assume that any airdropped tokens are securities.  The public offering or sales of securities must be registered with the SEC or qualify for an exemption, though many token companies are not complying with these requirements.  As a result, a number of these airdrops may be violating securities laws, even if the teams behind the assets claim they are not securities, or if they do not realize their activities fall within the scope of the securities laws.  In light of this, the following legal issues may apply to an airdrop:

  • Transfer Restrictions – Even if a token qualifies for an exemption from registration with the SEC, it may be subject to transfer restrictions. For example, many securities are exempt from SEC registration via the private placement exemption under Regulation D (also known as “Reg D”), which requires a certain holding period (e.g. 6-12 months) before a purchaser can transfer the securities.  While the Reg D exemption applies to purchases and sales of securities, the Reg D holding restrictions may apply because the SEC may view the exchange of personal information and/or public promotion as payment.  In light of this, the recipients of digital assets (unknowingly) may be restricted from transferring those assets and should be careful.
  • Free Stock Enforcement Actions – In the late 1990’s the SEC brought enforcement actions in cases of “free stock” offerings. In such instances, companies gave out “free” stock in exchange for something of value to the company.  For example, recipients provided personal information, solicited additional investors, and linked to issuers’ websites.  The SEC was concerned that investors were not receiving full and fair disclosures about the securities.  Airdrops resemble free stock since the airdrop teams give “free” tokens, often in exchange for information like email addresses or social media shares.  Additionally, these airdrop programs are often promoted in mediums such as Telegram chats where disclosures are entirely absent.  Because of these similarities with free stock, the SEC could bring enforcement actions against the sponsors of the airdrops in the future.
  • Broker-Dealer Regulations – Generally, a broker is anyone that engages in securities transactions on behalf of another person for compensation, and must be registered with the SEC. If a team airdrops digital assets on behalf of other token companies, it could be deemed a broker if it receives compensation for the airdrop.  This compensation could take the form of tokens or marketing services from issuers of the airdropped assets.
  • Underwriter Liability – An underwriter is someone that acts on behalf of a securities issuer, for example, by distributing securities of the issuer. Depending on the circumstances, underwriters can be liable for an issuer’s securities violations.  If an airdrop team deposits tokens that are issued by another company, it could also be liable for the securities violations of that company, which very well may be the case, as described above.
  • Pump & Dump – Pump and dump schemes occur when an organized group coordinates to artificially change the price of an asset. The SEC and CFTC have issued warnings about token pump and dump schemes, and the SEC has already pursued certain groups for these schemes.  In light of this, airdrop announcements and marketing materials will likely be subject to heightened scrutiny by the SEC and CFTC.
  • KYC/AML – Know Your Customer (“KYC”) and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) laws are aimed at combatting money laundering and bribery and require certain due diligence on clients. KYC and AML regulations typically apply to banks, broker-dealers, FINRA members, and other financial institutions, as well as large cash transactions.  Many token exchanges already implement KYC and AML procedures, for example, by requiring new users to upload a driver’s license in order to prove their identities.  It’s possible that an airdrop team may be subject to KYC and AML requirements such that it would need to verify the identity of each recipient.

Conclusion

As the digital asset industry becomes more aware of the securities laws and the nuances of the application of those laws to the digital asset space, sponsors of digital assets are working to make sure their business plan and token distribution structure fit within the laws.  While airdrops (“free tokens”) seem like one way to get around certain securities laws, there are still risks and sponsors should vet any potential distribution, even if free, with legal counsel.  We do expect to see a wider variety of token offering structures used in the future, including Regulation A+ which has fewer restrictions on securities transfers.

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP.  Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first digital currency-focused hedge funds and works routinely on matters affecting the digital asset industry.  Please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345 if you have any questions on this post.