SEC Investigation into the DAO’s Initial Cryptocurrency Offering (ICO)- On July 25, 2017, the SEC issued its Report on an investigation into an ICO and related activities by the DAO, an unincorporated entity, Slock.it UG, a German corporation, and various principals and participants. Although the report provides a platform for which the SEC can educate the marketplace, it did not pursue enforcement actions against the targets of the investigation.
The “DAO” stands for a decentralized autonomous organization, or a virtual network embodied in computer code on a DLT or blockchain. The DAO was created by Slock.it to sell tokens to investors, which proceeds would be used to fund for-profit projects. The token holders would share in the profits and, as such, had an expectation of a return on investment. The DAO tokens were also transferable and available for secondary trading on different web-based platforms. After the ICO, but before projects were funded, the DAO was hacked and approximately one-third of its assets stolen. Fortunately the DAO was able to come up with a plan that caused the return of ETGH raised from the DAO back to their original Ethereum address and thus return investments to the original investors.
The SEC opened an investigation as to whether the offer and sale of the DAO Tokens invoked federal securities laws, whether the DAO Tokens were securities and whether the platforms for the secondary trading of the Tokens required registration as a securities exchange. The answer to each of these questions, under the facts and circumstances presented, was in the affirmative. Since the DAO had not yet commenced operations, the SEC did not review whether the DAO was acting as an “investment company” under the Investment Company Act of 1940, but noted that had they begun operations, such an analysis would have been appropriate.
The Report begins with the conclusion. Whether or not a particular transaction involves the offer and sale of a security depends on an analysis of the facts and circumstances, regardless of terminology or technology used or employed. All persons or entities that use a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO Entity), DLT or other blockchain-based technology as a means to raise capital in the U.S. are subject to the U.S. federal securities laws. All securities offered and sold in the U.S. must be registered or must qualify for an exemption from registration. Moreover, any entities or platforms that allow for the secondary trading of securities must either be registered as a national securities exchange or operate pursuant to a registration exemption. The automation of functions, computer code, smart contracts, and decentralization does not change the obligations under the federal securities laws.