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Alan Cohn counsels clients on a range of blockchain- and cryptocurrency-related issues, from regulatory best practices for cryptocurrency companies to legal issues associated with novel uses of blockchain technology. In addition to co-leading Steptoe's Blockchain & Cryptocurrency practice, Alan also co-leads the firm's National and Homeland Security practice, and has experience across homeland security, emergency management, and emergency response services at the federal and local level. Read Alan's fill bio.

On November 15, Director Kenneth Blanco of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) offered his most extensive remarks on blockchain since the agency’s release of updated guidance in May. Speaking at the Chainalysis Blockchain Symposium, Director Blanco offered a number of insights on FinCEN’s current priorities and industry trends.

Suspicious Activity Reports

According to Director Blanco, since the publication of FinCEN’s guidance in May, the agency has received over 10,000 suspicious activity reports (SARs) related to convertible virtual currency (CVC) with 6,600 of those SARs filed by CVC-related businesses, including exchanges and kiosks. Director Blanco noted that this was a significant increase in SAR volume, particularly from CVC-related businesses, and included SARs from dozens of businesses that had never filed a SAR with FinCEN prior to the publication of the guidance.

Director Blanco also highlighted a couple of trends in SAR reporting. The first is SARs related to “potential unregistered, foreign-located money services businesses (MSBs), specifically, Venezuela-based P2P exchangers.” A foreign-located MSB is required to register with FinCEN if it conducts business in whole or in “substantial part” in the United States. (Determining precisely what constitutes “substantial part” continues to be an area of uncertainty for industry, which Director Blanco did not address.) A second trend was CVC kiosk operators reporting on “activity indicative of scam victims upon identification of new customers who have limited knowledge of convertible virtual currencies, particularly those in vulnerable populations, including the elderly.”

Continue Reading FinCEN Director Offers Most Extensive Remarks on Blockchain Since Agency’s New Guidance

On April 29, blockchain took over the Cyberlaw Podcast once again with Alan Cohn, Gary Goldsholle, Will Turner, and guest speaker, Jeff Bandman, covering all things blockchain and cryptocurrency. We dove right into the recent activity from the SEC, namely, the Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets and the No-Action Letter issued to TurnKey Jet, Inc. (TurnKey) for a digital token.
Continue Reading Blockchain Takes Over Episode 261 of the Cyberlaw Podcast

On April 3, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) provided important guidance for token issuers. The SEC Division of Corporation Finance issued a No-Action Letter dated April 3 regarding TurnKey Jet, Inc. (the “TurnKey No-Action Letter”) in which the SEC staff confirmed that it would take no action against Turnkey Jet, Inc. (TKJ) for selling tokens without registration. This guidance is most relevant to token issuers who are focused on commercial utility and record-keeping benefits in a centrally controlled network and are willing to minimize or eliminate the profit elements of the token. The TurnKey No-Action Letter, taken together with the Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets (“Framework”) issued by the SEC’s Strategic Hub for Innovation and Financial Technology on the same date, offers guidance for structuring the elements of a private, permissioned, centralized blockchain token and network.[1] 
Continue Reading TurnKey Token Gets to Fly: SEC Issues First No-Action Letter for Token Sale

Long awaited guidance from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on application of the Howey test to digital assets came on April 3 in the form of a Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets (“Framework”) and a No-Action Letter regarding TurnKey Jet, Inc. (the “TurnKey No-Action Letter”). These two documents are best understood as part of a trilogy with the June 2018 Hinman speech.

The Framework offers the clearest indication yet of the SEC staff’s thinking on the Howey test, with the TurnKey No-Action Letter and the Hinman speech providing examples of where a digital asset fails to meet a necessary element of the test. For purposes of clarity, it helps to think of the Howey test as having four elements:  (1) an investment of money (2) in a common enterprise (3) with a reasonable expectation of profits (4) derived from the efforts of others.[1]

The first two prongs are essentially throwaways inasmuch as the Framework devotes only three sentences to them in total. SEC staff note that these prongs are “typically satisfied” in evaluating digital assets. On the other hand, the Framework pays significant attention to the third and fourth elements.
Continue Reading SEC Smooths Out Digital Assets Turbulence With Further Guidance

The Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) recently published its 2019 Annual Report, “Beyond the Hype: Building Blockchains for Real World.” The report provides a comprehensive update on the global regulatory landscape surrounding blockchain technology along with an overview of some of the blockchain solutions being built by GBBC members.

Steptoe authored an overall insights piece,

Sanctions compliance considerations have always been an important factor for cryptocurrency companies, but a number of recent US government actions suggest regulators are increasingly focused on the intersection between digital currencies and economic sanctions.   This intensified focus highlights the importance of sanctions compliance for blockchain-related companies, particularly for those considered US persons.

This increased focus has been building for a number of months.  For example, in March of 2018, President Trump issued an Executive Order imposing certain sanctions on the Venezuelan government-issued digital currency known as the petro.

Last week, the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) took another step to ramp up sanctions against bad actors utilizing digital currency. 
Continue Reading Sanctions Compliance Risk Increases for Cryptocurrency Companies

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC or Commission) November 16 announcement charging two cryptocurrency companies—CarrierEQ Inc. (d/b/a Airfox) and Paragon Coin Inc. (Paragon)—with conducting an initial coin offering (ICO) in violation of the securities registration rules should not come as a surprise to those in the industry. The SEC has repeatedly emphasized that issuers of securities—even those based on a blockchain or distributed ledger technology—must register such securities or comply with an applicable exemption from registration under the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act). The Airfox and Paragon orders explain when the SEC will determine that a token offering constitutes a security, and the remedial measures that the SEC may require for token offerings that do not comply with the Securities Act. Following the announcement, the Commission’s divisions also put out a public statement outlining their views on digital asset securities issuance and trading. We view these actions as signals that the Commission is likely to ramp up its efforts to enforce the securities laws in the weeks and months to come.
Continue Reading A Thanksgiving Feast: SEC Sets the Table for More Crypto Enforcement Servings to Come

In a recent Client Alert, Alan Cohn, Jason Weinstein, and Meegan Brooks discuss the impact of blockchain technology in the retail industry, which will likely see more disruption in the next few years than it has seen in decades. What role will blockchain technology play in that disruption?

Instead of completely disrupting the retail

On November 8, the SEC issued a settled order against Zachary Coburn, the creator of the smart contract that powers the EtherDelta decentralized exchange.  In the settled order, the Commission found that Coburn’s EtherDelta smart contract, which enabled trading of Ether against any other ERC20 token, and the EtherDelta website through which buyers and sellers of ERC20 tokens met, operated as an unregistered “exchange” in violation of Section 5 of the Exchange Act.  Without admitting or denying the findings, Coburn consented to the order and agreed to pay $300,000 in disgorgement plus $13,000 in prejudgment interest and a $75,000 penalty.  The Commission’s order notes that Coburn’s cooperation was a consideration in not imposing a greater penalty.

This is the first case involving a so-called “decentralized exchange.” 
Continue Reading The EtherDelta order: SEC continues to articulate what constitutes a cryptocurrency “securities exchange,” weighing in on “decentralized” exchanges