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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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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Several members of Congress have sent a letter to the IRS calling for cryptocurrency tax clarity.

Today's letter, published by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, calls on the agency to “expeditiously issue more robust guidance clarifying taxpayers’ obligations when using virtual currencies.” It is a follow-up to a letter published in 2017.

These letters echo Coin Center’s calls for greater clarity and guidance around the tax treatment of cryptocurrencies. Right now, American cryptocurrency users who want to pay their taxes simply don’t know how to do so properly. This gray area is not only frustrating, but can also create serious liabilities for well-meaning citizens.

The 2017 letter goes on to ask for more information about the rationale behind the IRS’s 2017 John Doe summons for Coinbase user data, which we believe is an overly broadfishing expedition.

We were also pleased to see them ask if the agency will consider a de minimis exemption for small transactional use of cryptocurrencies, which we called for in April of last year. Currently, a user needs to calculate capital gains on every stick of gum they buy with cryptocurrency. That doesn’t make sense. The Cryptocurrency Tax Fairness Act, introduced last year, would address this issue.

We are glad to see Congress take action–there are clearly many open questions surrounding taxation of cryptocurrencies. It’s promising to see members of Congress step up to call for a more welcoming environment for these new technologies.

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The Comptroller of the Currency is making the case for a Federal Fintech Charter, a welcome alternative to state-by-state licensing for cryptocurrency and other payments companies.

In a recent op-ed, Comptroller Otting rightly celebrates competition between state and federal regulators and describes the existing dual banking system:

“Since 1863, the United States has benefited from a dual banking system in which companies seeking to conduct the business of banking can choose to operate via state licenses and charters or apply for federal charters and operate nationwide.”

A shortcoming of the dual banking system, as we see it, is that while there are both state and federal options for traditional deposit-taking banks, payments companies who don’t take deposits (cryptocurrency exchanges among them) generally only have one option: state regulation through money transmission licensing. Why, we’ve asked on several occasions, isn’t there a federal regulatory alternative for money transmitters as there is for regular banks?

The OCC’s fintech charter could be that alternative. It would allow a financial services company to become federally regulated as long as it performs any one of the three core banking functions described in the National Bank Act: deposit-taking, lending, or check-cashing (or as the kids these days call it, payments).

Moreover, as we’ve written in our comments submitted to the OCC Fintech Charter proceedings, companies that facilitate payments in cryptocurrency should also be eligible for federal charters just like the Paypals or Venmos of the world.

Today, the Comptroller echoed that sentiment, suggesting that there should be a Federal analog to New York’s recent decision to regulate Gemini and Itbit’s issuance of dollar-backed tokens. We’re thrilled that the federal charter effort is alive and kicking and that the Comptroller is excited for his agency to play a role promoting innovation in the cryptocurrency space.

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The Federal Reserve of St. Louis has published an excellent paper on payment systems and privacy.

Research Fellow Charles Kahn explains why financial privacy is important irrespective of concerns over illicit transactions, and how privacy is being actively eroded as electronic payment systems replace anonymous cash.

Not all of the privacy provided by cash is bad, and if cash disappears we will need new ways of providing that privacy. Because privacy needs are different in type and degree, we should expect a variety of platforms to emerge for specific purposes, and we should expect continued competition between traditional and start-up providers.

He goes on to offer two reasons why the private sector may be better poised to provide future cashless payment privacy than the government: technical expertise and trustworthiness.

First, it's hard to argue that the central bank will have greater technical skills in protecting privacy (at least in retail transactions; wholesale and infrastructure may be a closer call). The standard regulatory arguments for oversight of payments systems apply, however: There is an easy case for a regulator to be in charge of setting and harmonizing standards for privacy protection.

On the issue of trustworthiness, the answer is more difficult: … Every twist and turn in politics provides an opportunity to justify an examination of one or another aspect of individuals' transactions. And it is not clear in the current political environment that a central bank or a payments authority will be any stronger at pushing back on these intrusions than private institutions are.

Nor will transparency solve the problem. Paper money is transparent: The technology eliminates the ability of the issuer to monitor transactions, and "it is a truth universally acknowledged" that paper money does so. No computer technology can have this degree of confidence. Only an infinitesimal proportion of people on this planet can verify that computer code does what it advertises it does and only what it advertises. To believe that the CIA has imprinted paper currency with a technology enabling it to report hand-to-hand transactions is paranoia. To believe that spy agencies have backdoors to common computer programs is last week's news. Generating trust in the privacy promises of a public payments authority's new electronic money will be an extremely tall order.

He's also understandably wary of the trustworthiness of private sector payments providers given the lucrative incentives behind customer data collection and monetization. In light of that unfortunate reality, he offers an optimistic balance-of-powers prognosis for privacy:

All institutions, public or private, are likely to be untrustworthy—they are just going to be untrustworthy in different ways. Citizens are not really interested in an absolute guarantee of privacy; we simply want it to be sufficiently difficult to violate privacy that it can be done only in a publicly observed and generally agreed way. Using the differences in objectives of the private and public spheres becomes, it seems to me, a way of making this tension work for us: Public regulation with pushback by private providers seems to me the more hopeful formula.

That's a reasonable approach, but it also points to an alternative. Rather than looking for trustworthy institutions or pitting one untrustworthy institution against another, perhaps we can use open source software development and open blockchains to build private payment systems that don't require trustworthy administrators at all! This, it seems to me, is one way to describe the goal of privacy-protecting cryptocurrency projects like Zcash, Monero, and Grin, and it's why we at Coin Center are so keen on promoting a regulatory climate that does not deny these new technologies the room they need to grow into robust cash alternatives.

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SEC refusal to allow exchange to list Winkelvoss ETP “Dampens Innovation,” according to SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce.

The SEC rejected a request to allow the BZX Exchange to list and trade shared of the Winkelvoss Bitcoin Trust, a Bitcoin based Exchange-Traded Product (ETP). In order to allow the exchange to list the ETP, the SEC would have had to approve a rule change. The SEC refused to do so, largely because they felt that the BZX Exchange did not have sufficient safeguards in place to prevent market manipulation.

In her dissent from the decision, Commissioner Hester Peirce laid out the flaws in the SEC’s reasoning, and shone a light on the challenge to innovation that this decision poses:

By suggesting that bitcoin, as a novel financial product based on a novel technology that is traded on a non-traditional market, cannot be the basis of an ETP, the Commission signals an aversion to innovation that may convince entrepreneurs that they should take their ingenuity to other sectors of our economy, or to foreign markets, where their talents will be welcomed with more enthusiasm.

To support her point, Peirce lists some of the many benefits that decentralized cryptocurrencies offer:

For example, trading in bitcoin is electronic, which facilitates competition and price transparency. Bitcoin are interchangeable, so that a purchaser is sure to get exactly the same thing no matter where she purchases it. In addition, bitcoin mining is not geographically limited (except to the extent it migrates to places with cheap electricity), so it is not subject to geopolitical threats that plague other commodity markets.

Peirce voices serious concerns about the discord between the SEC’s actions and its mission. She warns that with this decision, the SEC has positioned itself as the “gatekeeper of innovation,” which, in Peirce’s view, is a role that “securities regulators are ill-equipped to fill.” Peirce argues that investors in the cryptocurrency space tend to have far more sophisticated knowledge of the technology and should be left to decide for themselves whether they wish to invest. She concludes by asserting that the SEC has overstepped its boundaries and is acting in interests contrary to the ones it was founded to protect:

I reject the role of gatekeeper of innovation—a role very different from (and, indeed, inconsistent with) our mission of protecting investors, fostering capital formation, and facilitating fair, orderly, and efficient markets Accordingly, I dissent.

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Despite criticisms, Fed agrees it won’t regulate cryptocurrency.

Last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testified before the House Financial Services Committee, and while reports of his remarks on cryptocurrency have focused on his narrow and negative views of the technology, we think the real news is that he stated that the Fed doesn’t have jurisdiction over cryptocurrencies and isn’t seeking to provide oversight.

An exchange between Powell and Rep. Patrick McHenry, who understands cryptocurrency, basically restates Coin Center’s recent explainer on crypto and monetary policy: “Cryptocurrencies hold much promise to expand the range of monetary options available to all classes of people and secure a degree of security and liberty not offered by some of the world’s government-backed currencies. They currently exist in a small and experimental corner of the world’s financial markets, and are therefore unable to restrain central bank’s monetary policy levers.”

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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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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.