As the crypto winter of 2018 drags on, few winds are more chilling to market participants than those issuing from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Convinced that most initial coin offerings, if not all, qualify as offerings of unregistered securities—and thus violations of longstanding law—the agency has spent the year subpoenaing startups. Under pressure to settle their cases, dozens of crypto companies have reportedly agreed to pay back investors and accept fines.
ICO activity is now down 90 percent since the start of 2018, according to financial research firm Autonomous Research. The irony of this inquisitorial fervor is that Ethereum, the network that launched a thousand tokens, has so far escaped prosecution. In fact, it seems to be in the clear. In June, William Hinman, the SEC’s director of corporation finance, said that ether is not a security, in part because the network has become sufficiently decentralized.
It isn’t clear exactly how and when a digital asset originally sold in a securities offering can shed its status as a security. So what is going on? The reality is that new technology often falls into a legal gray area. It’s tolerated by regulators when it might be censored—and a good thing too. Amid the SEC crackdown, there is a deeper story about outlaw innovation and what we owe to pathbreakers, even if they are lawbreakers.
Amid the SEC crackdown, there is a deeper story about outlaw innovation and what we owe to pathbreakers, even if they are lawbreakers.
Let’s start with what we know. In 2014, before the network launched, Ethereum’s founders allocated about 60 million ether to crowd-sale investors in exchange for about $18.4 million worth of bitcoin. Some of the investors were almost certainly Americans. Did this violate the letter of securities law? Quite possibly.
But a more sensible question is, so what? So what if the SEC could have brought an action four years ago, had the agency only known what was going on? Would the world truly be better off if regulators had curb-stomped the second-most-valuable cryptocurrency into oblivion?
Hundreds of companies are now building applications on Ethereum—both the public, open-source network and the private, permissioned architecture of the Ethereum Enterprise Alliance—with an eye to improving healthcare, banking, media, digital advertising, and other industries. Among the EEA’s members are JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Intel, and Pfizer. Should that burst of innovation be killed because a small number of technologists once held a token sale?
Your answer will come down to what you believe this technology has to offer. If you think crypto and blockchain represent the “mother of all scams and bubbles,” as New York University economics professor Nouriel Roubini says they do, then your answer is yes. Any securities violation is just one more black mark against an industry that is infested with scammers and charlatans.
If instead you think blockchain will add $3.1 trillion of value to businesses worldwide by 2030, as Gartner has predicted, then you may be willing to forgive a few crypto pioneers for coloring outside the lines. After all, society has already given a similar pass to Sean Parker, the creator of Napster, Travis Kalanick, the cofounder of Uber, and Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal. Thiel recently described the “strange regulatory zone” around PayPal as it sought to transform how we send money to each other. Thiel refused to hire lawyers to chart the startup’s strategy, believing they would just tell him not to do what he needed to do.
Ethereum, like the entire cryptocurrency and blockchain ecosystem, is frontier tech. It requires a frontier mindset. Sometimes that means heading off into uncharted territory and blazing a trail before norms can be established. Other times, in the service of a worthwhile goal, it means breaking those norms.
This is not the malfeasance of big corporations but the inspired action of a few true believers—missionaries, not mercenaries. “Frontier tech is for the individual,” entrepreneur Mike Dudas argues. “The hierarchy and political structures of traditional technology companies and markets don’t exist.”
There is certainly a danger of giving super-rich businessmen too much latitude to do as they please. It is mostly a very good thing to uphold, as John Adams wrote, “a government of laws and not of men.” The SEC is trying to do just that by forcing tech companies to restrict their crowdfunding efforts to “accredited investors.” Only individuals with a net worth of at least $1 million (not counting the value of their primary residence) or annual income of more than $200,000 for each of the past two years, with an expectation of the same for the present year, qualify as accredited investors.
Outlaws can serve a useful purpose—if only by highlighting which laws, like the 85-year-old law that governs ICOs, need to be reformed.
Though well-meaning, these barriers to participation are quite arbitrary. Crypto has benefited from attracting the talents of those, like Vitalik Buterin and Polychain Capital’s Olaf Carlson-Wee, who started out with no special status and little money in the bank. Wealth is no guarantee of investor savvy, nor is lack of wealth proof of its absence.
Recognizing this, Jeb Hensarling and Maxine Waters—respectively the House Financial Services Committee chairman and the committee’s ranking Democrat—introduced a bill in July that would confer accredited investor status on those with “qualifying education or experience.” This makes sense. Experience, intelligence, and discipline are what matter most to avoid getting burned in the market. But how does someone prove they have those qualities?
Such questions remain to be answered. But if crypto advocates are really to create a more level playing field—”an open financial system for the world” in Coinbase’s default phrase—then U.S. securities laws can’t remain as they are. Allowing the non-wealthy to become accredited investors would be a start.
Cryptocurrencies and blockchain won’t always be frontier tech. Outlaws will need to become respectable law-abiding citizens, or suffer the consequences. Established technology is for the organization, not for the individual. But until that happens, outlaws can serve a useful purpose—if only by highlighting which laws, like the 85-year-old law that governs ICOs, need to be reformed. For that, we owe them not our condemnation but our thanks.