Hot Takes

Good news: Ethereum’s CryptoKitties are probably not securities.

Ethereum just got overrun with cats; the cats are literally slowing down the network with their feline machinations, their idiosyncratic personalities, and yes, their breeding… lots of cat breeding… on Ethereum. The cats are called CryptoKitties. Just like bitcoins or ether, CryptoKitties are peer-to-peer tradeable, provably scarce digital items that are accounted for by an open blockchain network. Unlike those cryptocurrencies, each item (each kitty) is unique with its own set of attributes: striped, droopy-eyed, slow (yes, slow is one), and many more.

Rather like some of the ICOs you might have read about, there is a company that is selling some of these digital items and financing its operation from those sales. From their FAQ:

The CryptoKitties team releases a new “Gen 0” CryptoKitty every fifteen minutes (up until November 2018). The starting price of “Gen 0” CryptoKitties is determined by the average price of the last five CryptoKitties that were sold, plus 50%.

There are complicated and controversial legal arguments about why some ICOs might be unregistered securities issuance while other might not be. The SEC has yet to offer a bright line test but has identified a few specific projects as securities and indicated that it looks to the flexible test for an “investment contract,” the so-called Howey Test, in order to determine whether any particular token sale is securities issuance. Our framework for securities regulation of cryptocurrencies has outlined the nuts and bolts of that standard and advocated for an innovation friendly approach since 2015.

CryptoKitties look less like securities under that flexible test for a few reasons. One important prong of the test is whether buyers are relying on the managerial efforts of others for profits. First of all, CryptoKitties aren’t marketed as profit-making investments, and ownership of a Cryptokitty doesn’t give you a right to dividends or revenue streams from the Cryptokitty team or anyone else for that matter. Sure people might hope that they can flip a kitty for a profit but people feel that way about other non-securities like real estate, gold, or (appropriately) beanie babies. And sure you can breed two kitties to get more cats which you could of course sell, but that alone certainly doesn’t make them securities any more than real life purebred pets.

This is starting to sound a bit like an actual case about securities law and real life animals, the case was SEC vs. Weaver Beaver (yes, that’s the actual name). Here’s Bob Davenport, a regional director of the SEC back in the 1970s:

The beaver case was a case called SEC versus Weaver’s Beaver Association. One defendant appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied cert. A fellow in the Salt Lake area started a company called Weaver’s Beaver Association. They sold pairs of beaver, all over the United States and in foreign countries. These were purportedly domesticated beaver. You would buy a pair of beaver for several thousand dollars, and these beaver would have little beavers, called kits. Then these little kits would grow up, and they’d have more kits. And you would end up with this large herd of beaver. The beaver were to be sold to other purchasers. They had a marketing arm, where they would sell your pairs of beaver. There was going to be a tremendous demand for beaver pelts in coats, beaver hats, and everything—it’s coming back. So they sold millions and millions of dollars of these beaver. The salesmen represented that you could take possession of your beaver, and you can raise them in your own backyard, but if you don’t have the capabilities, we have beaver ranches all through the West—Montana, Wyoming, et cetera.

It didn’t end well:

We’ll take care of your beaver for you for a hundred and fifty or a hundred seventy-five dollars per beaver per year, until you can sell it. Nobody could take care of beaver; you can’t put it in your bathtub. The purchasers would have to leave the beaver on the ranches. What happened was that all these beaver and their kits that was being sold to people could not be re-sold, because the Association was too busy selling their own beaver to take time to sell your beaver.

So these people ended up with a large number of beaver, and they’re paying all these ranching fees. It was just a disaster. They really weren’t selling domesticated beaver; instead they were flying the beaver down from Canada and purchasing them from trappers in Canada at approximately twenty dollars a beaver. They’d fly them into Salt Lake, put tattoos in their back foot, in the web, and start selling them. They’d sell them for three thousand a pair and up.

The SEC came after Weaver Beaver because it was clear that the economic reality of the scheme wasn’t just beaver sales! Weaver was selling shares of a “profitable” beaver farm. You weren’t buying a beaver to take it home with you; you were buying it to get rich, and you relied on Weaver to take care of your beavers, breed them, sell the kits and give you the profits. Nobody actually took delivery of their beaver (you are shocked, I know).

So why are CryptoKitties different? Because you can and do actually take delivery of your CryptoKitty. You don’t have to keep them in your bathtub, you just connect to the open Ethereum network and check up on the blockchain to find your cats. You don’t have to rely on the CryptoKitty team to take care of your cats or breed them for you, the cats don’t eat and “breeding” is just an ethereum transaction that you (and only you) can make by using any free and compatible Ethereum software client and by signing the transaction with your Ethereum private keys. And you don’t rely on the CryptoKitty team to find buyers for your cats, or buy them back from you, all sales are peer-to-peer and any ethereum user in the world can find you and offer to buy your little bundles of kitty joy (or breed with it!). Also there’s no sad beaver relocation, caging, and tattooing, just happy little bits of digital fur ball coursing over the world’s increasingly renowned global computer, Ethereum. That last one isn’t part of the Howie Test but it makes me happy to live in the future we got.

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Experts weigh in the the state of cryptocurrency regulation.

At a recent event hosted by Andreessen Horowitz and #Angels, Coin Center Senior Policy Counsel Robin Weisman joined former federal prosecutor and now lead of a16z’s crypto fund Kathryn Haun on stage to talk through recent movements in cryptocurrency policy and the effect they may have on the development of this technology.

The session was recorded. Listen here:

(Photo courtesy of @beLaura on Twitter)

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A top SEC official said that Ether is not a security.

Speaking today at a conference, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Director of Corporate Finance, William Hinman, revealed in a speech that the SEC does not consider Ether, the Ethereum network’s native cryptocurrency, to be a security:

"Based on my understanding of the present state of Ether, the Ethereum network and its decentralized structure, current offers and sales of Ether are not securities transactions."

We are glad the SEC agrees with our long held analysis of how securities law applies to decentralized cryptocurrency networks like Bitcoin and Ethereum (See, in particular, our analysis of Ethereum here). We are thrilled to see it take strong pro-innovation approach to this nascent technology. With this guidance, the SEC is showing that taking a pro-innovation approach does not have to come at the expense of protecting investors.

Director Hinman’s analysis was based on an appreciation for the nuances of how decentralized technology really works, something we laid out years ago in our framework for securities regulation of cryptocurrencies. He used his speech to explain the Howey Test for determining whether a financial instrument is an investment contract and concluded that his analysis was that Ethereum failed the Howey test and, therefore, could not be considered a security:

When the efforts of the third party are no longer a key factor for determining the enterprise’s success, material information asymmetries recede. ... the ability to identify an issuer or promoter to make the requisite disclosures becomes difficult, and less meaningful.

It is a very good day for US policy toward the technology of innovation.

For more information on Ethereum, please see this explanation written by Ethereum’s founder, Vitalik Buterin, on Coin Center’s website: What is Ethereum?

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CFTC Commissioner recognizes the “transformative” nature of cryptocurrency.

During his speech at the United Nations last week, Commissioner Behnam spoke at some length about the potential value that this new technology can bring to the United States and other nations. He noted that cryptocurrency has the potential to be an effective runaround the problem of corruption in International Development:

Here is our chance to put money directly into the hands of those who need it, without bribery, rake-offs, graft, and shakedowns. Virtual currencies could transform the economic and social landscape. It could mean a massive, and equitable, shift of wealth. Technology could be transformational, without a military take-over, civil war, or political or religious creed.

Benham also spoke about sectors of the United States economy that have tremendous potential to apply this new technology. Here is what he said about agriculture:

Through blockchain technology, finding solutions to these challenges may become significantly more attainable. Food could arrive on grocery shelves faster, using an intricate system of measures meant to trace location from the farm to the table, with the additional bonus of providing abundantly more information about the product source… we could eliminate food waste and even improve distribution through networks domestically and internationally.

And about healthcare:

Blockchain could allow patients to create smart records that gather and harmonize information, leading to better continuity of care and even new models of care. Blockchain could also address medical fraud and waste. And, as a result, help contain the rising cost of health care.

In 2016, we published a report in which we explain why open, permissionless blockchain technology is essential for powering identity and digital cash use-cases that are inherent to addressing the supply chain and charitable aid issues Benham discussed. Indeed, we are cautiously optimistic about proclamations that imply these technologies are the skeleton key to unlocking greater equality and efficiency in global markets.

Behnam also spoke about the importance of pursuing legal action against fraudsters, and the challenge and importance of correctly categorizing specific tokens. Furthermore, Commissioner Behnam signaled that the CFTC was completely convinced that cryptocurrency is primed to permanently disrupt financial and economic sectors. In fact, he is so confident in cryptocurrency’s staying power that his rhetoric ascended from the analytical to the prophetic:

These currencies are not going away and they will proliferate to every economy and every part of the planet… We are witnessing a technological revolution. Perhaps we are witnessing a modern miracle.

We couldn’t agree more, Commissioner.

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Coin Center raises $1.2 million spurred by Kraken matching pledge.

Last week we announced on Twitter that we have reached and exceeded our goal of raising funds to match a generous $1 matching offer from cryptocurrency exchange Kraken (in addition to their already unprecedented $1 million donation), bringing our total fundraise in May to over $3 million.

This enormous outpouring of support from the cryptocurrency community is three times Coin Center’s annual budget, which will help us step up our education and advocacy work at a time when government interest in these technologies is the highest it’s ever been.

In addition to donations from the 100+ individuals, here are the companies that helped us hit our goal: 1Confirmation, Andreessen Horowitz, Ausum Ventures, Autonomous Crypto, Baroda Ventures, Blockchain Capital, Blockchange Ventures, Chia, Digital Currency Group, Dispatch Labs, DRW/Cumberland Mining, eToro, Hudson River Trading, itBit/Paxos, Kik, Medici Ventures, Polychain Capital, Protocol Labs, Ripple, SIG, SolidX, Steemit, Tlon, and Union Square Ventures.

Thanks to all of you who supported us. Your confidence in our work continues to humble us.

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The New York State Department of Financial Services just approved the trading of privacy-protecting cryptocurrency.

Gemini will become the first BitLicensed exchange to offer trading in Zcash.

The DFS press release summarizes Zcash in the following way:

The Zcash network supports two kinds of transactions, transparent and shielded. Transparent transactions operate similarly to Bitcoin in that the balance and the amounts of the transaction are publicly visible on the blockchain. Shielded transactions utilize z-addresses and are entirely private. Transactions associated with z-addresses do not appear on the public blockchain. Zcash is the digital cryptography-based asset of the Zcash network, similar to how bitcoin is the digital cryptography-based asset of the Bitcoin network.

Earlier this year, the Japanese Financial Services Agency (FSA) strongly encouraged the Japanese cryptocurrency exchange, Coincheck, to ban trading on privacy protecting coins. They claim that privacy protecting coins such as Zcash and Monero are more likely to be employed in transactions for illicit purposes.

We’ve previously explained why there’s no reason an exchange wouldn’t be able to compliantly deal in privacy protecting cryptocurrencies.

Financial institutions are legally required to comply with anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing laws and regulations. Can these institutions use a payment system and currency that leaves no record of individual transactions? Absolutely! That system is called cash and just about every financial institution in the world uses it. Cash transactions are still much more opaque than any cryptocurrency transaction, even a Zcash transaction from a shielded address.

And it is encouraging to see New York’s DFS resist much of the panic around privacy-protecting coins, and recognize the potential value they may bring to users. The forward thinking spirit of the decision is capsulated best by this statement by DFS Superintendent Maria T. Vullo:

"This action continues New York’s longstanding commitment to innovation and leadership in the global marketplace. With smart and thorough regulatory oversight, the development and long-term growth of the industry will remain thriving.”

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Photos from the 2018 Coin Center Annual Dinner now available

Thank you to everyone who came out for our most successful fundraising gala yet. It was a pleasure to host some of the best and brightest from the cryptocurrency world for a lighthearted night of fun.

Here are some pictures from the event.

A lot of you have been asking for a copy of the remarks made by keynote speaker Joe Weisenthal. Those are available here.

Stay tuned for next year’s dinner. Hope to see you there!

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SEC Commissioner doesn’t want to pick cryptocurrency winners and losers.

Commissioner Hester Peirce added herself to the list of SEC officials making sensible comments about the agency’s role in regulating cryptocurrencies. At the Medici conference in Los Angeles last week she revealed a nuanced view. Here’s some of what she said, per Axios:

“On a beach, you have a lifeguard…. but she’s not sitting with the sand castle builders,”

For years now many have pointed to the need for regulatory “sandboxes” wherein an innovator can obtain binding agreements from a regulator: e.g. “we (the regulator) will regulate you differently than the underlying law would otherwise require if you commit to sharing data or designing your project in a specified manner.” While that could lighten the compliance load for some folks in the ecosystem; it also creates risks that some projects will get prefferatory treatment and an unfair advantage over other projects or technologies.

Peirce’s preference to be a lifeguard over a sand castle architect is laudable. In general, it’s best that regulators only get involved in emergencies, when there are grave risks to consumers or investors that can only be addressed through the law. Regulators should avoid making legally binding pronouncements that dictate specifics about how consumer or financial technologies should be built. Cryptocurrencies are at a nascent stage where any action from regulators could create far reaching consequences for development and U.S. competitiveness.

We would like to see policymakers approach these new networks similarly to how the early internet was approached: hands off policy calibrated to encourage developer experimentation. We are glad to see Commissioner Peirce shares these sentiments. Be sure to read some more of what she said.

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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.