Category Archives: DLT

Senate Banking Committee Focuses on Libra Privacy Issues

On July 16, 2019, a Senate Panel lobbed missives across the Libra bow when questioning David Marcus, the head of Facebook’s Calibra subsidiary.   As suggested by the title of the hearing – “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations”, today’s hearing was really all about Facebook and not about digital currencies or blockchain technologies in any broader context.

Using a tone that permeated for much of the hearing, Sen. John Kennedy ignored Facebook’s participation in a Swiss Association that purportedly leaves Facebook with little control over Libra and instead mocked: “Facebook wants to control the monetary supply. What could possibly go wrong?” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) reinforced this lack of trust when he said that Facebook was dangerous because it did not “respect the power of the technologies they are playing with, like a toddler who has gotten his hands on a book of matches, Facebook has burned down the house over and over, and called every arson a ‘learning experience.'”

Sen. Brian Schatz summed up the mood nicely when he recognized: “You’re making an argument for cryptocurrencies generally. The question is not, ‘Should the U.S. lead in this?’ Why in the world, of all companies, given the last couple of years, should [Facebook] do this?” 

On a more substantive side, the hearing was driven by a concern for privacy rights. As reported in The Wall Street Journal,  Mr. Marcus suggested that Facebook would not monetize users’ data related to Libra because no financial or account data from the Libra network would be shared with Facebook:  “We’ve heard loud and clear from people, they don’t want those two types of data streams connected.”

Even though it did not garner much public analysis, Chairman Crapo’s Statement provides an important privacy perspective that may also set the table for future legislative action: “Individuals are the rightful owners of their data. They should be granted a certain set of privacy rights, and the ability to protect those rights through informed consent, including full disclosure of the data that is being gathered and how it is being used.”

And, despite all of his protestations to the contrary, in his own prepared testimony, Mr. Marcus actually provides a rough roadmap detailing how the financial and transactional data obtained by Calibra could directly bolster Facebook’s data surveillance revenue.

Specifically, Mr. Marcus states: “The Calibra wallet will let users send Libra to almost anyone with a smartphone, similar to how they might send a text message, and at low-to-no cost.  We expect that the Calibra wallet will ultimately be one of many services, and one of many digital wallets, available to consumers on the Libra network.   We do not expect Calibra to make money at the outset, and Calibra customers’ account and financial information will not be shared with Facebook, Inc., and as a result cannot be used for ad targeting. Our first goal is to create utility and adoption, enabling people around the world— especially the unbanked and underbanked—to take part in the financial ecosystem.  But we expect that the Calibra wallet will be immediately beneficial to Facebook more broadly because it will allow many of the 90 million small- and medium-sized businesses that use the Facebook platform to transact more directly with Facebook’s many users, which we hope will result in consumers and businesses using Facebook more. That increased usage is likely to yield greater advertising revenue for Facebook.

To suggest that the mere ancillary use of Facebook’s platforms by Calibra users will alone cause an increase in advertising revenue makes little sense.  The only way Calibra will yield greater “advertising revenue” to Facebook is directly related to the well-understood increase in value user data would have after alignment takes place between transaction data and the other data obtained from Facebook’s platforms and services.  Indeed, advertisers have long recognized that personalization data is not nearly as useful as relevance data.

A long-term goal of Facebook’s Libra project, namely combining user data with associated financial and transactional data, should not be considered well-hidden. Mr. Marcus’ written testimony all but confirms Facebook will eventually harvest transactional and KYC data:  “Calibra will not share customers’ account information or financial data with Facebook unless people agree to permit such sharing.”  Indeed, Sen. Pat Toomey specifically asked Mr. Marcus whether Facebook intended to seek user consent to monetize Calibra-derived financial data and Mr. Marcus incredibly responded: “I can’t think of any reason right now for us to do this.” Really?

Facebook likely only has to ask and it will get whatever user permissions necessary to satisfy existing regulatory and statutory requirements.  Depending on the ultimate success of Amazon’s recent $10 offer for tracking data, Facebook may not even need to give much in return for such consent. In other words, once this particular genie is let out of the bottle there will likely be no turning back and any unencumbered launch of Libra might very well be the death knell for data privacy as we know it.

UPDATE: July 18, 2019

House Financial Services Committee Hearing of July 17, 2019

One major difference between the Senate hearing conducted on July 16, 2019 and the House Financial Services Committee hearing of July 17, 2019 was the sort of testimony provided by industry experts.  Even though the Senate smartly sought testimony from Wall Street and blockchain industry expert Caitlin Long, unlike with the House, there were no one educating the Senate on Calibra’s privacy issues.

For example, MIT Professor Gary Gensler’s prepared House testimony lays out a number of questions regarding privacy that Facebook should answer at some point:  “We know that many of the most intrusive privacy practices of concern to privacy regulators have actually been subject to some form of consumer consent. So, it will be essential to conduct a more thorough analysis of what uses of Libra data should be allowed and which uses should be prohibited. How would such restrictions be monitored and enforced? What are the limited exceptions and might Calibra broadly seek customer consent in the form of standard user agreements? It would be likely that Calibra would want to commercialize this data. At a minimum, without sharing the raw transaction data from customers’ Calibra Wallets, it would still likely analyze such data to earn money either through advertisements or by offering targeted services to wallet holders.”  

As well, in the prepared written testimony of Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen, there is a long discussion explaining why Facebook is a “Corporate Surveillance Leviathan” that cannot be trusted with the proposed Calibra wallet.

The House Hearing also raised the issue of whether Facebook would be able to pick and choose users of the Calibra wallet – potentially forcing persons to conform their behavior to Facebook standards. In one highlight of the House Hearing, Congressman Sean Duffy waved a twenty-dollar bill in the air while making the point that anyone, including persons who say horrible things, can use a twenty-dollar bill but: “Who can use Calibra?”  In response, Mr. Marcus pointed out anyone who could satisfy Calibra KYC requirements – which then begged the loaded follow-up question from Congressman Duffy:  “Could Milo Yiannopoulos and Louis Farrakhan use Calibra [given they are both banned from Facebook]?”  In response, Mr. Marcus said that an applicable policy hasn’t yet been written but that it was “an important question that [Facebook] needed to be thoughtful about.”  

Given Facebook’s poor track record – indeed, former Facebook executives readily acknowledge Facebook holds too much market power and should not be trusted going forward, these and other “important questions” must be answered as soon as possible.

Will Libra Coin Kill Off Privacy For Good?

In January 2018, Facebook publicly announced it was going to take a deep dive into cryptocurrencies.   That same month, Facebook removed all ads from its platform that promote “initial coin offerings or cryptocurrency”.   Facebook’s policy was “intentionally broad” and banned “all ads related to cryptocurrencies — not just those directly trying to sell cryptocurrencies or cryptographic tokens.”  One example of a banned ad was provided by Facebook:  “Click here to learn more about our no-risk cryptocurrency that enables payments to anyone in the world”. 

In other words, Facebook’s “Libra Coin” – described as a “low-volatility cryptocurrency” for global payments in the sort of White Paper written for every ICO ever launched, began percolating at the very exact time Facebook banned ads about ICOs and cryptocurrency.  

Facebook’s crypto advertising ban and duopolistic reach pretty much sums up why potential users should be careful before jumping on the Libra bandwagon.  In what can only be considered ironic, the “Libra Coin” is not even a true cryptocurrency or even built on a blockchain – it is apparently the token for a permissioned payment network that is partially decentralized while requiring the disclosure of sensitive authentication data as well as use of the Calibra wallet owned and operated by Facebook itself.  Most importantly, as a node on the network Facebook will also have access to all consumer transaction data flowing on the network.  Like icing on a global cake, by being part owner of a de facto bank, Facebook will also get to share in any float interest.

Those premier venture firms and companies who have anted up to align with Facebook’s project may believe in the collective end game but to align now with Facebook simply because of its tremendous reach will likely be a mistake for them as well as the consuming public.

Is Facebook Dead Man Walking?

Whether Facebook survives as a social media platform may eventually hinge on a metric that has not been widely reported – which is ironic given what has recently been reported is hardly good news.   

On April 24, 2019, Facebook, Inc. estimated that it would incur a loss in the range of $3.0 billion to $5.0 billion as a result of privacy violations investigated by the Federal Trade Commission – which does not even take into account other pending privacy investigations including a report released on April 25, 2019 by Canadian privacy regulators.  Also, paying the FTC up to $5 billion will not save the company from the onslaught savvy class action lawyers will unleash the day after the FTC settles.  

Almost comically, on April 29, 2019, Facebook, Inc. announced what it likely thought was a successful PR coup, namely the funding of privacy research shepherded by two partner organizations, Social Science One and the Social Science Research Council.  Not surprisingly, there was no mention that Facebook would be provided specific recommendations from these organizations let alone have such recommendations eventually adopted by the company.  

Facebook’s privacy regulatory threats are not limited to those found in North America – Germany is attacking the core of Facebook, Inc.’s advertising business model and there are several potentially ruinous GDPR complaints that were filed against it the day that privacy regime became effective.   As previously stated with regards GDPR:  “Facebook will soon be in uncharted and unpredictable privacy waters where disclaimers and popup consent forms may not easily tread.”  

A different sort of threat to Facebook can be found in the decentralized Internet currently being built by start-ups such as Blockstack– which recently filed a SEC Reg A+ offering for $50 million by way of a subsidiary.  Blockstack looks to leapfrog centralized platforms such as Facebook by building tools for a “decentralized computing network and app ecosystem” that includes decentralized storage allowing for porting of app data across social media platforms as well as self-sovereign user IDs that would allow for single user identities and passwords across every online application.  

More than likely, however, the most damaging threat to Facebook in the near term is the platform’s continued drop in customer engagement.  As recognized by Lou Kerner:  “On April 24th, 2019, Facebook reported Q1 ’19 earning, and once again, Wall street applauded, sending the shares up 8%, adding another $45 billion in value. While some saw triumph, and others saw further reason to break Facebook up, all I saw was continued decline in the only metric that matters, engagement.”  

Kerner’s graphic on the steady decline of daily and monthly active Facebook users is ominous:

Notwithstanding its many privacy transgressions and current regulatory/litigation challenges as well as the future advent of a decentralized Internet, what likely will be the most direct cause of Facebook’s downfall as a platform stems from the simple fact users have been steadily moving away from using it.

Apparently, users have taken the advice of WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and have chosen to “delete Facebook.”  Even though Facebook, Inc.’s present cash reserve and its other popular applications would likely allow the company to continue as a viable entity for many years even without its eponymous platform, those present users who spend hours each day on Facebook – and have no desire to ever abandon it, might just not be enough to sustain the Facebook platform in the long term.  

Simply put, with shrinking levels of engagement the Facebook platform may eventually go from a MySpace to Vine.

SEC Issues First No-Action Letter for an ICO

The SEC on April 3, 2019 issued a No-Action Letter to an ICO offeror – demonstrating that its Chairman’s prior promise to devote sufficient SEC resources toward better understanding initial coin offerings has been kept. In the April 2, 2019 no-action request to the SEC, TurnKey Jet proposed, “to offer and sell blockchain-based digital assets in the form of “tokenized” jet cards.”  TurnKey plans to be the program manager for a membership program based on this token platform.  The tokens would be pegged at the US dollar “throughout the life of the Program”.  Apparently, the sole purpose in issuing tokens is to avoid financial transaction costs to the extent a credit card is used to book jet travel.  

Even though there is certainly value in eliminating the middleman in high-cost transactions – card brands, Venmo, and Paypal take note, this is not the sort of blockchain-implemented ecosystem envisioned by the early ICO issuers.  Nevertheless, this sort of use case provides a readily apparent benefit to its participants and is exactly what the blockchain/DLT community needs to move forward.  As previously argued, it is certainly not the case that all ICOs are securities so this no-action move by the SEC should be welcome by all. 

In a related positive move from the SEC, on April 3, 2019 the SEC released its Statement on “Framework for ‘Investment Contract’ Analysis of Digital Assets”.  Doing an excellent job of parsing the existing statutory interpretation of what constitutes a security, i.e., the now famous Howey test, the SEC’s FinHub Framework is a must-read for those looking to issue a digital asset.  

Notwithstanding some criticism of the SEC Framework, this release is a natural progression that should not be discounted.  More importantly, by launching this Framework the same day of its No-Action Letter, the SEC has sent a clear message that blockchain ecosystems remain open for business and the SEC will not hurl unnecessary impediments to the implementation of those use cases that actually comply with regulatory law.  

JPM Coin

On Valentine’s Day 2019, J.P. Morgan gave a kiss to the blockchain/DLT community by announcing its JPM Coin– a branded stablecoin pegged to the dollar that will be used by its large institutional clients to settle payment transactions.  Upon settlement, each coin would be burned and traded for a dollar.  The ultimate benefits in the JPM Coin ecosystem will be found in the transaction speed and very low cost of execution.  This is a noteworthy move given that there are obvious short term negatives to J.P. Morgan in that the launch of such an ecosystem might initially cut into some custodial profits.

Perhaps driven by the fact no bank could ever really control Bitcoin, J.P. Morgan’s CEO previously said that Bitcoin was a fraud.  It is likely no coincidence that this launch only took place after Bitcoin cratered by nearly 80% of its value.  Moreover, this announced future use of a “digital coin” is very much something J.P. Morgan could exert some control over – hence its name, and would not even initially be made available to J.P. Morgan’s retail clients.  It is assumed that would change over time after deployment and this coin’s usage matures – retail clients may eventually be able to use JPM Coins for mobile payment transactions or in lieu of a time-consuming wire transfer.

Even though there was an unexpected major hiccup in 2018, as previously pointed out, “acceptance of blockchain technology by the financial industry will be indelible proof those mistakes of 1995 made by retail sales and marketing companies will not be repeated by the financial industry.” In other words, by jumping on board feet first to the adoption of a digital coin issued on its own Quorum permissioned blockchain, J.P. Morgan is taking a major step towards having the financial industry continue to lead the DLT movement until the technology catches up to other innovative use cases in other industries.  

Gilder’s Life after Google

Even though one online reviewer called it “[a] random walk through Silicon Valley without any goal, valuable information, conclusions or anything other than what would fit a gossip magazine”, Gilder’s book provides a grand thesis with very deliberate underpinnings.  There are certainly many other books and articles out there that better inform regarding blockchain.  Nevertheless, Gilder explains exactly why blockchain will in the future help cause Google lose its digital stranglehold.  For that, his book largely stands alone.

Gilder has had close access to the elite tech digerati for decades. There is no denying he knows what and who he is talking about. The writing style, however, will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  For example, applying a straw man style, he often builds up only to take down later in the book. This can easily be frustrating to readers.  Also, an imagined meeting with Satoshi Nakamoto – the pseudonymous founder of Bitcoin, can either be considered a highlight of the book or downright hokey based on one’s literary taste.

To Gilder, Google’s downfall largely rests on its giving away free products without fully understanding how this zero-sum system neglects the value and impact of consumer time on Google’s $30 billion dollar Siren Servers – a Jaron Lanier term used to convey the eventual death spiral of a company blinded by its 75,000 server farm.  Gilder reminds:  “Without prices, all that is left to confine consumption is the scarcity of time”.

Interestingly, Jaron Lanier as well as Peter Thiel feature predominately in this book as the existential fodder for much of Gilder’s musings. The true sparkle, however, remains pure Gilder – including his view that Google’s fall is precipitated on the behemoth’s not fully understanding true wealth can only be a product of knowledge.  As Gilder suggests, “wealth is not a thing or a random sequence. It is inextricably rooted in hard won knowledge over extended time.” How he eventually connects the many dots found in the book is worth the read despite the haphazard approach.  And, despite valid style criticisms, given so few are walking down this exact path, Gilder’s trailblazing can only be lauded.

Using pokes and outright direct digs on failed exercises of socialism and a “World Saving” Artificial Intelligence fealty pursued by Elon Musk, Gilder’s libertarian bent thankfully expresses a brighter vision where creativity and humanity win out.  He is on point – just ask Tim Berners-Lee about his startup, Inrupt to get additional perspective on Google.  And, the decentralized web ecosystems exemplified by Blockstack and Hashgraph are certainly aimed at tearing down the current global ecosystems founded by the Tech Lords of Cali.  Ultimately, in futurist Gilder’s vision, individuals win when they can more easily trust and be secure in their interactions.

Those seeking an actual name for the specific Google killer app will be disappointed. This book does not tell its readers which business vision will launch the “killer app” required to actually break the status quo.  Readers are provided with an abstract roadmap lacking in specific directions because no specific killer app has been publicly announced yet and will likely not be released for another 24 months.

Consensus 2018 blockchain event exceeds expectations

After attending the largest early adopter tech conferences conducted over the past thirty years – from Internet World, VR World, COMDEX, CES, RSA, Game Developers Conference, etc., it is easy to say Coindesk’s recent Consensus 2018 Conference – the foundation for NYC’s “Blockchain Week”, was one of the largest gatherings of early technology adopters and backers ever packed in a single location.  Almost beside the point, Consensus 2018 was also easily the largest blockchain event to date.

Despite exceeding pretty much all expectations, it was not, however, without some controversy.  Noticeably absent from the event was Vitalik Buterin as well as any Ethereum presence other than a scheduled announcement and booth presence for the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance.  The visionary Buterin boycotted the event given disagreements with the sponsor and a purported grievance with the  $2,999 price tag  – despite the fact Mr. Buterin himself could have bought tickets for all 8400+ attendees if he wanted.  Buterin’s thought leadership and insights were certainly missed so hopefully next year there will be some sort of peace accord that brings him back into the fold.

According to the emcee for the event – a Brit anxiously pacing up and down with the obligatory iPad seemingly issued to all tech conference emcees, half of the attendees hailed from outside the United States.  In fact, meals and private meetings were enjoyed with folks visiting from South Korea, Australia, Finland, Switzerland, Portugal, Brazil, Berlin, Hong Kong, Vancouver, and Toronto – and that was only on the first of two attendance days.  Unlike what was shown by the early days of the web ecosystem, this gathering more than anything concretely demonstrates that any decentralized ledger future will be shaped by those outside the United States as much as by persons located within its borders.

The caliber of the audience – more so than the speakers, also demonstrates that the financial and professional institutions who missed out on the web ecosystem’s early brick laying are avoiding past mistakes.  Sensing just how disruptive things may soon get, they were out in full force – with Deloitte leading the Big Four charge and the purported naysayer JP Morgan having a sophisticated presence from New York and London.   Notwithstanding the fact the exhibit hall was stacked with ICO and ICO-wannabee companies that will likely go away in a few years, foundational companies were front and center promoting the tools and business models needed before blockchain can be digested by the masses in any meaningful way.

While companies wait to “cross the chasm”, investors are taking sides by investing in token economies and novel ramp up technologies.   And, after the speculative sheen has faded, the lasting result will be efficiencies in commerce one could only have dreamt about a few years ago.    Simply put, the “trust protocol” that will eventually be layered on top of our current digital ecosystem will create new opportunities for pretty much any company willing to listen and adapt.

Utility tokens are not a “bad idea”

In his February 8, 2018 opinion piece, Santander’s Julio Faura suggests that “utility tokens are a bad idea” because it would be a “lie to ourselves” to suggest ICOs were not actually selling securities.  Rather, in Mr. Faura’s opinion “we should collectively work on a framework to build a clearly defined scheme for ICOs, recognizing from the very beginning that they are securities.”  And, this “ICO process should be designed in collaboration with regulators to comply with securities law.”  Mr. Faura’s opinion piece does not exist in a vacuum.  In a report dated February 5, 2018, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s global head of investment research suggests that investors in ICOs could possibly lose their entire investments – which ties to Mr. Faura’s underlying premise that ICOs should be regulated “to protect investors”.

It is not clear how his proposed hybrid solution would ever get implemented given it requires complete buy-in from capital markets and regulators so would be a non-starter from day one – why would existing financial institutions and regulators scuttle existing methods of raising capital or attempt to squeeze ICOs under traditional securities law even if considered a sale of securities?  Answer:  They would not.  Ripple – a company partially funded by Santander InnoVentures, offers a glimpse on how traditional financial markets will compete using blockchain technology.

Mr. Faura paints all sales of cryptocurrencies with the same brush by claiming each one of them actually offers securities subject to SEC scrutiny.   That is simply not the case.  Indeed, does Mr. Faura wonder why the SEC has not knocked on Ripple’s XRP “digital asset” door even though it trades on numerous exchanges?  Even though there was no formal ICO to launch that centralized token, it now trades on 18 platforms where “individual purchases” of the XRP coin can be made.  Indeed, after raising over $93 million by September 2016, no ICO was needed.

One ICO left untouched by the SEC was “gate keeped” by Perkins Coie and involves an ICO for a utility token that raised $35 million in under a minute’s time.   This “BAT utility token” creates a digital advertising ecosystem tied to consumer attention – which is why it is the “Basic Attention Token”.  Such ecosystem would certainly be an upgrade from the current digital advertising scheme wedded to the Web ecosystem of 1995.

All told, it seems that the SEC and other regulatory bodies have actually taken a very measured approach in this area – aggressively focusing on obvious fraudsters first in order to deter subsequent fraudsters while letting the technology play out a bit in the wild.  Not surprisingly, the plaintiff’s bar has been doing a good job picking up the slack in those instances when the SEC has not yet moved.   See Davy v. Paragon Coin, Inc., et al., Case No. 18-cv-00671 (N.D. Cal. January 30, 2018) and Paige v. Bitconnect Intern. PLC, et al., Case No. 3:18-CV-58-JHM (W.D. Ky. January 29, 2018).

Recent public SEC statements seem to back this interpretation of their ICO position. On February 6, 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton recently testified that the potential derived from blockchain was “very significant” – his co-witness, CFTC Chairman Christopher Giancarlo, went so far as to say there was “enormous potential” that “seems extraordinary” for blockchain-based businesses.  Yet, during his testimony, Chairman Clayton said the SEC would continue to “crack down hard” on fraud and manipulation involving ICOs offering an unregistered security.  This is consistent with prior messaging given that Chairman Clayton requested on December 11, 2017 that the SEC’s Enforcement Division “vigorously” enforce and recommend action against ICOs that may be in violation of the federal securities laws.  The fact some 2017 ICOs raising hundreds of millions of dollars were not addressed by the SEC, however, provides a clear “nudge wink” that not all ICOs come under SEC regulatory control.

As with BAT, in the future, there will likely be many more utility tokens built on disruptive blockchain initiatives that escape SEC scrutiny given they are not perceived as securities.  The fact that the SEC has not yet moved on them – despite moving against Munchee, Inc. weeks after the Munchee MUN offering, signals the SEC will temper its enforcement activities when faced with a disruptive blockchain initiative that begets true intrinsic value.   In other words, utility tokens may very well be a good idea after all.

Do ICOs have any future?

On February 6, 2018, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs met in open session to conduct a hearing entitled, Virtual Currencies: The Oversight Role of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  The Honorable Jay Clayton, Chairman, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and The Honorable J. Christopher Giancarlo, Chairman, U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission provided lengthy and thoughtful prepared statements.  In his statement, Chairman Clayton explained why the SEC was devoting significant resources to ensure ICO founders do not skirt SEC’s regulatory oversight of security offerings and Chairman Giancarlo reaffirmed that the CFTC will similarly enforce its regulations on commodities.

Their testimony provides helpful insight regarding the enforcement direction these agencies will take in the coming months.  According to Chairman Clayton, in 2017 there was $4 billion raised in ICOs -with an unknown amount being sold in the US.   He was generally “very unhappy with ICOs” and mentioned that the SEC was “working the beat hard” to crack down on them.  Accordingly, ICOs are in the “crosshairs of enforcement” and tellingly he testified that “every ICO [he has] seen is a security” subject to enforcement.  This testimony is consistent with prior SEC pronouncements given that  Chairman Clayton previously requested that the SEC’s Enforcement Division “vigorously” enforce and recommend action against ICOs that may be in violation of the federal securities laws.   During his testimony, Chairman Clayton repeated several times that the SEC would continue to “crack down hard” on fraud and manipulation involving ICOs offering an unregistered security.

According to Chairman Clayton, the definition of a security is broad and will turn on whether someone can profit from efforts going forward by buying the token and then trade it with someone else for further profit.  Both Chairmen recognized that no one agency has any direct oversight of virtual currencies and welcomed efforts from Congress to draft new legislation that would help with their coordination efforts.

In probably the most interesting exchange during their two-hour testimony, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia recognized that the SEC went after certain ICO promoters but not others so directly asked Chairman Clayton whether the SEC “will go back [to scrutinize prior ICOs]?”  Correctly avoiding that question – given it requests insight as to future SEC enforcement efforts, Chairman Clayton instead offered that the SEC is counting on lawyers and accountants to also act as “gatekeepers” for future ICOs.

Chairman Clayton’s testimony came on the heels of the SEC’s Cease and Desist Order in the Munchee, Inc. matter that may have closed the lid on many planned 2018 ICO’s given the stringent standard set forth in that SEC Order.  By way of background, Munchee created an iPhone application for people to review restaurant meals.  In October and November 2017, Munchee offered and then sold purported utility tokens issued on the Ethereum blockchain.  “Munchee conducted the offering of MUN tokens to raise about $15 million in capital so that it could improve its existing app and recruit users to eventually buy advertisements, write reviews, sell food and conduct other transactions using MUN.”  Order at 1.

In deeming the MUN utility token a “security” subject to SEC oversight, the SEC made the following finding of fact in its December 11, 2017 Order:

Purchasers had a reasonable expectation that they would obtain a future profit from buying MUN tokens if Munchee were successful in its entrepreneurial and managerial efforts to develop its business. Purchasers would reasonably believe they could profit by holding or trading MUN tokens, whether or not they ever used the Munchee App or otherwise participated in the MUN “ecosystem,” based on Munchee’s statements in its MUN White Paper and other materials. Munchee primed purchasers’ reasonable expectations of profit through statements on blogs, podcasts, and Facebook that talked about profits.

Order at 5.

There remains hope for future ICOs given that the SEC is certainly not going after them all.  One ICO left untouched by the SEC was “gate keeped” by Perkins Coie and involves an ICO for an Ethereum utility token that raised $35 million in under a minute’s time.   See FAQ (“We and our counsel at Perkins-Coie are confident that the Basic Attention Token is properly classified as property with utility on the platform we are building, and not a security.”).  Given the subsequent Munchee C&D Order, it is unclear why the SEC does not “go back” to this ICO as suggested by Senator Warner.

The founders of Brave Software launched the “Basic Attention Token” in May 2017 seeking to improve on the current digital advertising ecosystem:   “Digital advertising is broken [with] unprecedented levels of malvertisements and privacy violations.”  The BAT token looks to fix this broken system by creating an ecosystem tied to consumer attention – which is why it is called the “Basic Attention Token”.  Such ecosystem would certainly be an upgrade from the current digital advertising scheme based on the Web ecosystem of 1995.  BAT tokens can only derive long term value by way of the Brave® Browser.   As set forth by a marketing blogger, “If Brave isn’t adopted, the new advertising structure won’t work.”

By successfully obtaining registered trademark No. 5,362,328 for BRAVE – a mark used to distinguish Brave Software’s “web browser software”, the founders of the BAT token demonstrate ownership rights in the Brave browser, that they are the source of such product, and that they will be the direct cause of the browser’s success.  In other words, buyers of the BAT ICO would necessarily profit from the efforts of Brave Software, Inc.   On the other hand, there remains utility to the BAT token.  Moreover, a utility token will likely always be at least remotely tied to the efforts of its founders – there is little reason to believe a token left in the wild would hatch into anything of value.  The fact that the SEC has not scrutinized the BAT ICO is actually an encouraging sign the SEC will temper its enforcement actions when faced with a disruptive blockchain initiative that begets true intrinsic value in the token.

State and Private Enforcement of ICO schemes

In addition to existing federal enforcement, state agencies are also cracking down on ICOs.  For example, on January 17, 2018, the Massachusetts Securities Division filed an administrative complaint against a Cayman Islands company given that the company operated out of Massachusetts and its ICO offered for sale “a security without such security being registered or exempt from registration.”  Complaint at 2.

And, to the extent state regulatory oversight may be lacking, states will try and enlarge regulatory reach by enacting new laws.  For example, California introduced a year ago the Virtual Currency Act (A.B. 1123), which would have required those involved in a “virtual currency business” within the state to register with California’s Commissioner of Business Oversight.  Even though this attempt at regulating cryptocurrencies died on January 31, 2018 due to political pressure, it may come back in a different from.    Interestingly, there was a carve out in the bill for any “virtual currency business” when it uses “[d]igital units that are used exclusively as part of a consumer affinity or rewards program”.

Class action counsel has also impacted ICOs by directly suing ICO founders in order to recoup millions for class participants.  One recent case is Davy v. Paragon Coin, Inc., et al., Case No. 18-cv-00671 (N.D. Cal. January 30, 2018).  Plaintiff class counsel sued Paragon based, in part, on the Paragon white paper characterizing its PRG token as potentially increasing in value simply based on the reduction of supply and an increase in demand.  Moreover, the paper suggests that “PRG is designed to appreciate in value as our solutions are adopted throughout the cannabis industry and around the world.”  Id. at 31.  In other words, the efforts of the founders would directly generate a more profitable investment result from the ICO.

Another ICO class action fraud case was filed in Paige v. Bitconnect Intern. PLC, et al., Case No. 3:18-CV-58-JHM (W.D. Ky. January 29, 2018).  The plaintiff’s claim of a Ponzi scheme was so strong it resulted in a TRO from the Court a day after filing suit.  Any future ICO that results in a loss in value to “investors” will likely trigger class counsel to spring into action.

The future of ICOs remains viable

Where does this trifecta of enforcement efforts – federal, state and private, leave ICOs?  If bankers are to believed, there is currently not much “there”, there.   In a report dated February 5, 2018, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s global head of investment research suggests that investors in ICOs could possibly lose their entire investments.  Goldman’s Steve Strongin said that while he did not know a timeframe for total losses in existing coins and tokens, he ruminated:  “The high correlation between the different cryptocurrencies worries me. . . Because of the lack of intrinsic value, the currencies that don’t survive will most likely trade to zero.”

Given the disruptive nature of ICOs on the IPO and private equity markets, it is not surprising that the global head of Goldman downplays the future of ICOs – even if he is correct in pointing out  the lack of intrinsic value in most every utility token and coin offered in an ICO.  Notwithstanding current enforcement actions and competition from traditional markets, the future for ICOs should remain viable.  Moving forward, the key to a viable and “compliant” ICO will be whether the ICO is conducted for a utility token having  demonstrated intrinsic value connected to the activities of those other than merely the ICO’s founders.

Blockchain in 2018 and beyond

Buoyed by Bitcoin’s latest price and a steady supply of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), the blockchain ecosystem in 2018 resembles the Web ecosystem of 1995 – an ecosystem that eventually disrupted advertising and marketing models by having companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook outplace traditional retail sales and marketing companies.  This time around, however, the financial levers presently held by banks and related financial services firms will be retooled – as well as the present centralized server model so very important to the same companies who previously benefited from the Web ecosystem, namely Amazon, Google and Facebook.

Speculation vs. Utilization

in September 2017, Bitcoin was famously derided by the financial titan Jamie Dimon as “a fraud”.  The JPMorgan CEO went so far as to say he would fire anyone on his trading team who bought Bitcoin.  His gratuitous digs at Bitcoin did not temper the rise of Bitcoin and became noteworthy – and a likely source of friction with his traders, because the Bitcoin cryptocurrency went on to increase in value over three-fold a mere 1Q after Dimon’s public derision.   As of December 31, 2017, Bitcoin sits at a price of near $14,000 whereas when Mr. Dimon’s bold pronouncements were made Bitcoin “only” had a price of $4,115.

Similarly, another banker – Vitor Constancio, the vice president of the European Central Bank, said in July 2017 that Bitcoin “is not a currency but a mere instrument of speculation” – comparing it to tulip bulbs during the 17th century trading bubble in the Netherlands.

In the same way that the World Wide Web was never defined solely by Pets.com, the benefits of blockchain technology should never be defined solely by the latest price of Bitcoin.  Even Mr. Dimon acknowledges as much given during his tirade against the speculative nature of Bitcoin he also said “he supported blockchain technology for tracking payments.”

By way of background, a blockchain is nothing more than an expandable list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography, namely cryptographic hashes that point to each prior block and result in an unbreakable “chain” of hashes surrounding the blocks.  More accurately referred to as a distributed ledger of accounts, a blockchain ecosystem will disrupt more than one industry beginning in 2018.

The inevitable changes that will occur in 2018 spring from several unique attributes of the blockchain ecosystem.  First, because a blockchain ledger is distributed it takes advantage of the vast amount of compute power available in most every computer device.  Similar to how the Mirai botnet distributed denial of service (DDos) attack became the largest DDoS attack by simply using unsecured IoT access, blockchain technology harnesses secure unused compute power in powerful and productive new ways.  Our new IoT ecosystem – which itself is an outgrowth of the Web ecosystem, will only feed into that result.

Secondly, blockchain ledger transactions are the closest thing to an immutable form of transaction accounting we have given the transactions have been verified and cannot be changed once written to the blockchain without evidence of obvious tampering – which was always the reason Bitcoin derived any actual intrinsic value.  In other words, the promise of blockchain coupled with pure speculation has solely driven Bitcoin pricing.  By buying Bitcoin and other cybercurrencies, it is almost as if people were given a chance to turn back the clock and bet on the Web ecosystem in 1995.  Without usage for its intended purpose, namely being a trusted and immutable listing of Bitcoin transactions, Bitcoin would most certainly go to the zero valuation postulated by Morgan Stanley.  The logic is pretty straight forward – without an actual intrinsic store of value, there is no actual intrinsic store of value.  And, without some sort of intrinsic store of value there is no reason to consider Bitcoin an asset.  Accordingly, unless utilized by choice or forced to be used by a government, speculation will never be a sustainable impetus for the pricing of Bitcoin – or any other cryptocurrency for that matter.  Without utilization, tokens/app coins/cryptocurrencies will all die on the vine given external utilization will always be needed to create a store of value.

Utilization by way of Smart Contracts

Disregarding the unlikely scenario of governmental adoption, the future of any blockchain/cryptocurrency ecosystem necessarily ties directly to utilization.  Even though there are several protocols with smart contracts amendable to utilization, there is only one founded by a visionary who understands the issue of scalability and why scalability is the sine qua non of a successful blockchain ecosystem – in the same way a non-scalable Web ecosystem was always a non-starter.  An early December 2017 presentation given by that visionary – Vitalik Buterin,  talks to scalability as being the most important new initiative of Ethereum going forward in 2018.   Mr. Buterin – who will likely take the blockchain ecosystem where Gates took the PC ecosystem and Bezos took the Web ecosystem, suggests that “sharding” using a Validator Manager Contract –  a construct that maintains an internal proof of stake claim using random validators, will eventually solve the problem of scalability.  Simply put, not all blocks/shards will need to be placed under the main chain.  This is a natural evolutionary progression given as it stands now everyone seeking an Ethereum wallet needs to download Ethereum’s entire trove of over four million blocks – hardly a scalable solution for the many app tokens or coins running the Ethereum protocol.  Moreover, each Ethereum block currently also takes about 14.70 seconds to promulgateIn 2014, Buterin anticipated the feasibility of a 12 second block time so has certainly been moving in the right direction.  Given security and propagation issues, work on this remains in the infancy stage with a great deal of work necessary in 2018.  Nevertheless, in 2018 and beyond, smart contracts such as those available under Ethereum will allow for the utilization necessary for the blockchain ecosystem to thrive.

Adoption by financial markets and the Ripple Effect

Ripple/XRP surged at the very end of 2017 and quickly became a rumored stealth initiative by the regulated banking industry to combat unregulated cryptocurrencies.  Ripple promises “end-to-end tracking and certainty” for those banks using its RippleNet closed-loop network.  More than anything, this initiative demonstrates that unregulated ICOs and unregulated “currencies” may have spooked the world’s financial markets sufficiently to justify taking sides by investing in a Ripple contender – a “blockchain-like” service seeking to displace existing cryptocurrency mindshare.  Indeed, Ripple just replaced ETH/Ethereum as the second largest market cap cryptocurrency.   Even though only three financial institutions are listed as investors, that does not mean other financial institutions would not want to prop up use of this “currency” on the open market – the list of “advisory board members” is telling in that regard.  This bank-sponsored cryptocurrency certainly looks like it has more legs than most given there exists budding utilization – banks are currently already using the RippleNet network, coupled with massive speculation given its ballooning market cap.

In 2018, acceptance of blockchain technology by the financial industry will be indelible proof those mistakes of 1995 made by retail sales and marketing companies will not be repeated by the financial industry or even the server sector represented by the likes of Google – who has invested in Ripple.  More than likely, upcoming technology developments under the Ethereum protocol will beget future tokens with smarter utilization and even greater potential upside than either Bitcoin or Ripple.  In other words, the blockchain ecosystem in 2018 will be no different than the Web ecosystem as it existed in 1995.