Hot Takes

FinCEN raises major licensing problem for ICOs in new letter to Congress.

Nearly a year ago Coin Center released a report highlighting a looming ambiguity in FinCEN’s interpretation of federal anti-money-laundering laws: whether or not token sellers are money transmitters who are subject to the Bank Secrecy Act and need to do “know your customer” compliance with respect to their buyers, and arguing that any such interpretation would require formal rulemaking. We issued the report in part because we felt that the separate but related discussion over whether token sellers might be issuing securities had overshadowed this issue and left many unaware of the serious legal consequences that could stem from potentially violating the Bank Secrecy Act rather than the Securities Acts.

As it happens, our concerns were well-founded. Today FinCEN released a letter to Senator Ron Wyden clearly indicating that they interpret the relevant laws and regulations such that token sellers are money transmitters:

A developer that sells convertible virtual currency, including in the form of ICO coins or tokens, in exchange for another type of value that substitutes for currency is a money transmitter and must comply.

Make no mistake, this is a highly consequential interpretation. Accordingly, any group or individual developer who both (A) sold newly created tokens to buyers (i.e. had an ICO) involving U.S. residents and (B) failed to register with FinCEN as a money transmitter,and perform the associated compliance KYC/AML obligations, can be charged under a federal felony criminal statute, 18 U.S.C § 1960, with unlicensed money transmission. If found guilty one could face up to five years in prison. Criminal liability may also extend to employees of, and investors in, the business that sold the tokens.

There are important public policy questions at stake here:

  1. Is it wise or appropriate under relevant administrative law to make this substantial change/clarification in interpretation through a letter to a member of Congress interpreting guidance, rather than a public rulemaking or new legislation?
  2. Is it constitutional to mandate private data collection from people who are not financial intermediaries in the traditional sense, and may be better analogized to persons selling a new invention to buyers in a person to person transaction?

It is very difficult to take this letter and derive from it a clear picture of FinCEN’s interpretation. Only one footnote is given to explain their legal reasoning:

See, FIN-2013-G001 (explaining that convertible virtual currency administrators and exchangers are money transmitters under the BSA), and FIN-2014-R001, Application of FinCEN’s Regulations to Virtual Currency Mining Operations, January 30, 2014 (explaining that persons that create units of virtual currency, such as miners, and use them in the business of accepting and transmitting value are also money transmitters).

This footnote does not tell us whether FinCEN classifies these sellers as “exchangers” or “administrators,” two distinct types of money transmitter identified by the 2013 guidance. As we describe in our 2015 paper, there are compelling reasons why a developer selling a token is not an administrator: they cannot both issue and redeem the tokens that they sell, like a Bitcoin miner they merely put them into circulation and cannot claw them back (assuming they have sold an actual decentralized token and not some promise of future tokens). There are also good reasons why a developer selling a token is not an exchanger. They may sell but they do not do so as a business dedicated to exchange; they sell as one individual or entity would sell any valuable investment or commodity to another person, for their own purposes rather than to provide third-party money transmission services between two customers or people.

The bulk of the cited 2014 guidance on miners explains why a Bitcoin miner is not a money transmitter if they merely create the units. To be a money transmitter a miner must also sell them as part of an exchange business, rather than merely sell them on their own behalf. We can only assume that FinCEN believes that developers selling tokens are “in the business of accepting and transmitting value” in addition to creating new tokens. No doubt a developer selling tokens is accepting value, but who are they transmitting it to aside from themselves?

This is a complicated and consequential legal interpretation, and one that should be discussed, unpacked, and eventually finalized in a more formal and transparent setting, e.g. a rulemaking. A footnote in a letter to a Congressman should not suffice.

In the conclusion to our report from last May we outlined Coin Center’s position on these matters:

Common understanding suggests that money transmission is an act performed by an intermediary, a person who stands between two parties accepting money from one and transmitting it to another. When a person transacts directly with another person, giving them money for any reason—as a gift, a payment, a donation, a grant, a tip—she does not play this intermediary role. She does not hold herself out as a trusted third party. She is engaged in private, personal transactions rather than being engaged as a third party to the transactions of others.

Deputizing third-party intermediaries to surveil their users on behalf of the government is a policy choice Congress made long ago; one that carries risks to individual privacy but also potential benefits to national security and peace. It’s a tradeoff Congress made back in the 1970s and it isn’t going away anytime soon. However, mandating the same kind of surveillance from individuals who are not intermediaries—who are merely transacting on their own account with another citizen—is a considerable recalibration of the balance between privacy and security. It tips the scales against personal privacy and may even be unconstitutional.

This is not a recalibration that should be made merely by issuing administrative rulings or guidance, the approach thus far taken by FinCEN when dealing with these questions. Instead, FinCEN should clarify that selling decentralized virtual currency on one’s own account does not constitute money transmission, regardless of whether the purpose of that sale is to pay a merchant, to sell tokens received through mining, or—indeed—to sell one’s own newly invented decentralized token.

Should FinCEN or Congress wish to regulate this activity for financial surveillance purposes, that change must be the subject of a larger, more public debate within a notice and comment rulemaking or an amendment to the statutory law itself. Only those formal processes can enable necessary debate over financial surveillance and the constitutionality of warrantless search.

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New York is creating a cryptocurrency task force. We encourage them to reevaluate the BitLicense as part of their work.

As any cryptocurrency entrepreneur will tell you, getting a BitLicense is difficult and costly. Not only that, but as written the regulation has grey areas relating to custody, requires state approval before a company can add new products or services, and very few licenses have been issued.

The result of this is that many cryptocurrency businesses are choosing to simply forgo doing business with customers in New York.

We are glad to see the New York legislature taking the step of creating a task force to better evaluate the cryptocurrency landscape and its own regulatory stance toward the technology, which is well overdue. As Assemblyman Clyde Vanel noted, “It has been nearly four years since the implementation of the BitLicense. In the cryptocurrency space and technology in general, a few months is equivalent to years.”

We look forward engaging with the task force on this important mission.

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A bill that would clarify securities law for tokens and improve the tax treatment of cryptocurrencies was just introduced in Congress.

Today, Reps. Warren Davidson and Darren Soto introduced the Token Taxonomy Act, which includes several common-sense changes to federal law.

First, the bill would amend the definition of “security” in the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to exclude decentralized cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, thereby making clear that such cryptocurrencies are not subject to the rules and regulations of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. We have longargued that classifying decentralized cryptocurrencies as securities would be both impractical and harmful to innovation, a view that the SEC has, to its great credit, also recently taken. Although the SEC has put forth sensible guidance on this question, codifying that decentralized cryptocurrencies are not securities would mitigate any lingering uncertainty.

The bill would also make several changes to the tax treatment of cryptocurrencies. One such change that we have long argued for is a de minimis exemption for cryptocurrency transactions for goods and services. Today, if you buy a cup of coffee with bitcoins and the price of bitcoin has increased since you acquired it, you would have to calculate, report, and pay taxes on any capital gains that you realized as a result of the transaction, no matter how small they might be. The Token Taxonomy Act would create an exemption from this requirement for any gains under $600, similar to the de minimis exemption that foreign currency transactions enjoy today, which we think is a simple and fair way to avoid unfairly discouraging the use of cryptocurrency as a means of payment.

We are happy to see continued action from Congress to implement common-sense clarifications and adjustments to the regulatory treatment of cryptocurrencies. We are looking forward to continued engagement with policymakers on these issues to ensure that the fruits of cryptocurrency innovation are not lost to ill-considered policy.

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The next Coin Center Annual Dinner will be on May 13, 2019

Save the date! Blockchain’s night out is back. We will be returning the the magnificent ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in New York City after the first night of Consensus 2019.

Join us for a evening of food and drink with the best of the cryptocurrency industry, all while supporting Coin Center’s critical policy advocacy mission.

Monday, May 13, 2018 - 7:00 PM

The Plaza Hotel

768 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10019

Individual tickets will be available in early 2019.

You can see pictures from past dinners here.

For table sponsorship opportunities contact antonie@coincenter.org.

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Two new digital asset associations launch to advance cryptocurrency professionalization.

Over the last week, The Association for Digital Asset Markets and Mexican Blockchain Association both launched. Their goals are to develop industry standards, codes of conduct, and best practices among companies working with public blockchain networks.

You can read ADAM’s founding principles here and about the Mexican Blockchain Association (in Spanish) here.

It is great to see cryptocurrency industry participants increasingly work together to improve their standards and build an orderly cryptocurrency ecosystem. We are looking forward to working with both organizations.

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The SEC published much-needed guidance on tokens and trading.

It recently released a “Statement on Digital Asset Securities Issuance and Trading” that uses the example of recent enforcement actions and settlements to illustrate how the securities laws will be applied to token issuance and exchange. It’s well done, reasonable, and says much of what one would expect: That looking at the totality of an activity, doing something that would otherwise be regulated isn’t exempt just because one uses blockchain technology to do it.

That said, we’re a little concerned that the Statement suggests that “an entity that provides an algorithm, run on a computer program or on a smart contract using blockchain technology, as a means to bring together or execute orders could be providing a [regulated] trading facility.” As we’ve explained previously, writing and publishing code alone cannot be a crime.

We do not think the SEC intends to directly regulate the mere creation and publication of code. For one thing, this statement is focused on the current landscape of decentralized exchanges and, as of today, there is no code that, when published to a blockchain on its own, could result in a fully functional exchange. Additionally, the statement repeatedly focuses on “the totality of activities and technology used” to generate the exchange platform, not on any particular activity, such as software design. However, we encourage the SEC to make it clear that merely writing and publishing code for decentralized exchange by itself does not “provide a trading facility.”

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The Blockchain Alliance reaches 100 law enforcement, regulator, and cryptocurrency industry members.

The alliance, launched in 2015, is a forum for the law enforcement, regulators and cryptocurrency businesses to communicate with each other.

When we helped found the Blockchain Alliance, we wrote:

Law enforcement will pursue criminals no matter what technology they’re using, and how law enforcement does this can affect an open technology. As a result, it’s in everyone’s interest–law enforcement, industry, and those of us who want to keep the technology free and open–to make sure that law enforcement understands how the technology works, what can and can’t be done with it, and what are the opportunities and limits it presents for their investigations. To that end, today we announced the formation of the Blockchain Alliance, a forum for law enforcement and regulators to ask questions of each other and to share information, and for law enforcement and regulators to get technical assistance from industry on understanding the blockchain.

We’re excited to see the Blockchain Alliance grow so fast and are hopeful that collaboration between cryptocurrency innovators and government continues to flourish. Read the full announcement here.

(Image credit: /u/Chinxcore)

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We briefed Congress on tracking illicit cryptocurrency use and moderated a convening on ICO regulatory uncertainty.

This was a big week for cryptocurrency in DC.

On Tuesday, members of Congress and over 50 representatives from the crypto industry convened at the Library of Congress for a roundtable entitled “Legislating Certainty for Cryptocurrencies.” The event was organized by Rep. Warren Davidson and also attended by Reps. Tom Emmer, Ted Budd, and Darren Soto. Coin Center executive director Jerry Brito moderated the event, and entrepreneurs voiced their concerns about the lack of clarity around when exactly a cryptocurrency token is or is not a security.

Following the roundtable, 14 members of Congress, led by Rep. Budd, sent a letter to SEC Chairman Jay Clayton echoing the concerns of cryptocurrency innovators and asking for more clarity around the regulatory treatment of these networks.

In another event in Congress on Wednesday, in conjunction with the the Congressional Blockchain Caucus, Coin Center put on a briefing about the tools law enforcement has to track illicit use of cryptocurrencies. Blockchain forensics company Elliptic presented how their product works with real-world examples of illicit funds being traced by law enforcement. Reps. Emmer and Schweikert also gave remarks highlighting the importance of getting the regulatory approach to these technologies right and preserving a fertile climate for innovators in America.


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Based in Washington, D.C., Coin Center is the leading non-profit research and advocacy center focused on the public policy issues facing cryptocurrency and decentralized computing technologies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Our mission is to build a better understanding of these technologies and to promote a regulatory climate that preserves the freedom to innovate using permissionless blockchain technologies.