Last month, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced settled charges against three decentralized finance (DeFi) protocols for various registration and related violations under the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) during the relevant period of investigation. As a result, each entity paid a civil monetary penalty and agreed to cease violations of the CEA. According to a statement by Commissioner Kristin N. Johnson, these latest settlements are the first time the CFTC charged a DeFi operator (e.g., Opyn, Inc. and Deridex, Inc.) with failing to register as a swap execution facility (SEF) or designated contract market (DCM). Moreover, these latest enforcements against DeFi entities arrive soon after the CFTC’s successful enforcement and default judgment against Ooki DAO, which the CFTC alleged was operating a decentralized blockchain-based software protocol that functioned in a manner similar to a trading platform and was violating the CEA (prior coverage of the Ooki DAO enforcement can be found here).
Way back (if we’re counting tech years) in 2014, artist Kevin McCoy (“McCoy”) created a digital record of his pulsating, octagon-shaped digital artwork Quantum on the Namecoin blockchain on May 2, 2014, thereby minting “the first NFT.” A lot has happened in the digital asset and NFT space since that…
On 7 September 2023, the United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) set expectations ahead of its new financial promotion rules for cryptoassets (which we wrote about here).
From 8 October 2023, new rules for the marketing of cryptoassets come into force. The new requirements include the need for marketing…
In its February 2023 discussion paper (DP23/2) relating to the UK regulatory regime for asset management, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) briefly touched on fund tokenisation as an area of technological drive and change in the fund management industry. Please refer here to our update on that discussion paper.…
On July 12, 2023, U.S. Senators Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) proposed a revised version of their previously introduced crypto regulation bill to create better safeguards for the crypto industry generally while adding new, stronger consumer protection provisions and AML provisions. The Lummis-Gillibrand bill, also known as the Responsible Financial Innovation Act (“RFIA”), identifies the need for enhanced regulation of digital assets. The proposal addresses this need, in part, by creating clearly defined regulatory roles for the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), which are two of the leading regulatory bodies currently engaged in regulating the U.S. crypto market, as well as creating a new Customer Protection and Market Integrity Authority self-regulatory organization. The need for greater clarity in the roles of the CFTC and the SEC and with respect to cryptocurrency regulations generally is certainly timely, given the recent CFTC actions against Blockratize, bZeroX (and its successor Ooki DAO), and others and recent high-profile SEC actions against major crypto exchanges.
Unlike traditional corporate entities with a typical hierarchical structure, a decentralized autonomous organization (“DAO”) – a management structure that uses blockchain technology – functions as a leaderless entity. Without a formal corporate structure, DAOs instead operate by distributing governance rights among persons who hold a specific governance token. Consequently, federal and state courts have been grappling with how to consider a DAO under existing laws that were traditionally interpreted against long-standing corporate entities.
As discussed in a prior post, DAOs allow individuals to organize and coordinate at arms-length, and rely on code (a “protocol”) to govern and execute functions traditionally determined by governing documents, like operating agreements and articles of formation, and undertaken by executives. A DAO’s protocol is committed to a public ledger on a blockchain, which guarantees accessibility and transparency. Each member is granted governance rights – the ability to propose and approve initiatives, called proposals – through a governance token. In light of their unique makeup, DAOs lack centralized leadership and a typical top-down management structure.
Accordingly, parties have debated whether a DAO should be recognized as a general partnership under state corporation laws (i.e., N.Y. P’ship Law §10: “an association of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners a business for profit….”) or, in the case of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (“CFTC”) Ooki DAO enforcement, whether a DAO could be deemed an “unincorporated association” under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”). Following the filing of the CFTC’s enforcement action, it is not surprising that the structure of the Ooki DAO, and the CFTC’s enforcement action against the DAO itself, has garnered a lot of media attention and industry reaction, and has raised novel legal issues.
Several questions have arisen in recent years regarding the potential liability of DAO members:
- While DAOs are emerging as a viable structure in the DeFi space, does their non-traditional makeup necessarily shield them from real world liability?
- Does a DAO’s structure render its activities “enforcement proof” or, at the very least, difficult to effect traditional service of process upon?
- Can a DAO be an “unincorporated association” under federal or state law?
- Who should be liable for the decisions made by a DAO?
- Because token holders participate in the DAO’s governance, can they be deemed personally liable for its actions (akin to the general partners in a general partnership), even if each governance token holder is essentially unknown to the other DAO members, who likely reside in multiple jurisdictions?