The New Digital Wild West: Regulating the Explosion of Initial Coin Offerings

60 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2017 Last revised: 7 Mar 2019

Date Written: September 1, 2017

Abstract

In less than a calendar year, initial coin offerings or “ICOs” have become the fastest growing capital market in the world. In 2016, an entity called The DAO raised $160 million by selling crypto-tokens to over 15,000 individual purchasers around the globe. This massive fund raise would give rise to an entirely new capital ecosystem. In 2017, initial coin offerings would explode, raising a collective $3.5 billion in just the first three quarters of the year. All of this was done without a single registration being filed with the SEC, and many of these initial coin offerings — including several $100 million raises — were based on little more than a white paper and few lines of sample code. Welcome to the new Digital Wild West. With the seemingly overnight success of this new funding mechanism, there is little if any legal scholarship addressing initial coin offerings and how, or if, such offerings should be regulated. This article provides a non-technical legal audience with a foundational understanding of how the blockchain works, and the role initial coin offerings play in this new economic ecosystem. The overarching thesis of the article is that our current securities law framework, a framework that dates to the days of the great depression, is ill-equipped to handle this new world of decentralized, global, pseudonymous fund raises on public blockchains. Instead, governmental regulators should be working with core development teams to build a regulatory framework that integrates investor protections directly into the computer code governing these systems. By embracing “code as law,” both regulators and core development teams can protect the innovation being funded by initial coin offerings, while at the same time injecting some much needed investor protections into this new ecosystem. This article begins with an introduction to the coming decentralized world, including an overview of both public blockchain technology as well the Ethereum platform, the primary public blockchain upon which initial coin offerings are being deployed. Central to this introduction is an explanation of how the decentralization and disintermediation brought by the blockchain has the potential to dramatically reshape our economic and social systems. Next, the article explores the recent explosion of initial coin offerings, discussing how these offerings are structured, and how this new funding mechanism, if developed properly, has the promise of democratizing opportunities for economic innovation. The article then examines the SEC’s early statements on initial coin offerings to illustrate the potential problems with applying a dated legal framework to this new technology. Finally, the article concludes that the traditional securities law framework is ill suited for the coming decentralized world because the SEC’s enforcement power over global blockchain platforms is limited. Recognizing that external legal frameworks cannot be forced upon public blockchain platforms, the article argues for a collaborative process where governmental regulators work with core development teams to build a regulatory framework into the very fabric of these platforms, thereby providing investors protection, while at the same time embracing the concept of code as law.

Keywords: blockchain, initial coin offering, ico, token sale, cryptocurrency, bitcoin, crypto-asset, crypto-token, decentralized, DAO, decentralized autonomous organization, ethereum, ether

Suggested Citation

Robinson II, Randolph, The New Digital Wild West: Regulating the Explosion of Initial Coin Offerings (September 1, 2017). 85 Tenn. L. Rev. 897 (2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3087541 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3087541

Randolph Robinson II (Contact Author)

The John Marshall Law School ( email )

315 South Plymouth Court
Chicago, IL 60604
United States

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