Thursday, November 2, 2023

The arbitrariness of the SEC's misguided enforcement-driven approach to crypto + federal bank regulators, [& their] State-level counterparts, abusing their supervisory authority to label businesses unworthy of having a bank account and worked in secret to purge disfavored lines of commerce from the financial system

Overdue: Statement of Dissent on LBRY. Commissioner Hester M. Peirce. SEC, Oct 27 2023.

The Commission has brought many troubling crypto enforcement actions, but the LBRY, Inc. (“LBRY”) case has especially unsettled me. A statement on the case is overdue. I did not support bringing the case, but have been unable to speak publicly about my concerns while the case has been in litigation. Last week, after losing in federal district court on the question of whether the sale of LBRY tokens was an unregistered securities offering, LBRY announced that it will not move forward with an appeal of the decision.[1] Instead, the company will shut down and its assets will be placed in receivership and used to satisfy its debts, including the civil money penalty owed to the Commission.[2] Are investors and the market really better off now after the Commission’s litigation contributed to the demise of a company that had built a functioning blockchain with a real-world application running on top of it? This case illustrates the arbitrariness and real-life consequences of the Commission’s misguided enforcement-driven approach to crypto.

One does not have to dig deep to find fraudulent crypto projects that sold tokens with promises that they did nothing to fulfill. This sad reality makes the Commission’s decision to bring a case against LBRY especially puzzling. LBRY’s approach was more conservative than the approach many other projects took.[3]Here, the blockchain was up and running at the time most tokens were sold, and the Commission’s complaint did not allege, and the court did not find, evidence of fraud. LBRY built a blockchain to facilitate data sharing, afford greater control to content creators, and make censorship more difficult. LBRY created a popular platform on the blockchain for sharing videos and other media.[4] The open-source LBRY blockchain was available for anyone else to use.[5] Why go after a company that sold a token for a functioning blockchain with an established use when we could have pursued plenty of other projects that were outright frauds and did not attempt to comply with the securities laws? To make matters worse, the Commission took an extremely hardline approach in this case. For example, after winning on summary judgment, the Commission sought monetary remedies of $44 million and asserted that LBRY’s offer to burn all tokens in its possession was not sufficient assurance that LBRY would not violate the registration provisions in the future.[6] The Commission’s requested remedies were entirely out of proportion to any harm. Indeed, the court stated during the remedies hearing that “the absence of fraud allegations, [and] the fact that there was some measure of uncertainty” regarding the application of the securities laws when LBRY commenced its offering were facts that “should be taken into account when considering a penalty.”[7] After the remedies hearing, the Commission pared its penalty request back to a significantly lower $111,614, which the court approved.[8]

The application of the securities laws to token projects is not clear, despite the Commission’s continuous protestations to the contrary. There is no path for a company like LBRY to come in and register its functional token offering.[9] Even if a company did manage to register its token offering, it would not be a particularly useful effort. Compliance with the securities laws is important because we want to ensure that people buying securities receive accurate and reliable information so they can assess the risks and rewards of an investment. Here, LBRY made significant disclosures outside of the registration process—disclosures that the Commission did not allege were fraudulent or misleading—and there is little to indicate that LBRY’s disclosures did not provide token purchasers with information adequate to assess whether the tokens were a good fit for them.[10] The time and resources we expended on this case could have been devoted to building a workable regulatory framework that companies like LBRY could have followed. Then the market could have decided LBRY’s fate.

Even if, as the judge ruled here, the offering of tokens should have been registered, our scorched earth approach in remedying the violation was completely out of proportion to any investor harm. How does the result in this case protect LBRY investors, who likely would have preferred that the company continue to exist to support the blockchain, which is still in its infancy? The judge did not rule on whether the token itself was a security or on the status of secondary sales of LBRY tokens,[11] which means that the LBRY blockchain may live on, but its path forward is difficult. The Commission’s action forced a group of entrepreneurs to abandon what they built. Our disproportionate reaction in this case will dissuade people from experimenting with blockchain technology, which LBRY aptly describes as “technology that enables dissent.”[12] A government of a free people should welcome dissent and the technologies that enable it.

Earlier this year, LBRY tweeted: “It’s the year 2028, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been jailed for using illegally cryptocurrency instead of CBDCs, and Hester Pierce [sic] is still just writing dissenting memos.”[13] Although I will be tending bees, not writing dissents, in 2028, I think often about the crux of that criticism and ask myself: “What could I do to help prevent another group of people with a big idea for changing the world from going through what LBRY has over the past several years?” I have not come up with an answer to that question; however, I urge people who have suggestions about how the Commission can right its course on crypto and innovation more broadly, to send them my way.[14]

[2]Id. (“LBRY must die, there is no escaping this. It has lost a judgment to the federal government, has several million dollars in debts, and has pledged to shut down.”).

[3] See, e.g., DAO Today with Alexa Mil Podcast (Dec. 27, 2022), at approximately minute 12 (comments of Jonathan Schmalfeld) (“Lots of people looked at LBRY as doing things the right way. They weren’t doing the ICO. When they released the fully developed platform. The tokens were consumptive. There was an actual use for them on release date. They did a traditional investment raise. They brought on shareholders. They used securities and venture investing. And they didn’t sell tokens as part of that. There wasn’t any kind of pre-token rounds as part of that. And then they waited a year until after the platform was actually working and functional and there was a good amount of videos on there.”).

[4]See Odysee, (last visited Oct. 24, 2023). LBRY subsequently transferred this platform to its Odysee subsidiary.

[5] See LBRY, (last visited Oct. 24, 2023) (describing the LBRY protocol). As the district court noted when it granted summary judgment to the Commission, it was “generally uncontested” that “(1) LBC is a utility token designed for use on the LBRY Blockchain, and (2) some unknown number of purchasers of LBC acquired it at least in part with the intention of using it rather than holding it as an investment.” SEC v. LBRY, Inc., 639 F.Supp.3d 211, 220 (D.N.H. 2022).

[6] Commission’s Opposition to LBRY’s Motion to Limit the Commission’s Remedies at 9-11, 13-15, SEC v. LBRY, Inc., No. 21-cv-260 (D.N.H. Dec. 19, 2022), ECF No.94 (requesting $22 million in disgorgement and a $22 million civil money penalty).

[7]Transcript of Motions Hearing Before the Honorable Paul J. Barbadoro at 50, SEC v. LBRY, Inc., No. 21-cv-260 (D.N.H. Jan. 30, 2023), ECF No. 105; see also id. at 17 (“Let’s be fair here. You are not alleging that LBRY engaged in any fraudulent activity, first. Second, although I held that LBRY had fair notice sufficient to allow for the enforcement of the Securities Act against it for those offerings, the fact of the matter is that this was one of the first non-fraud cases that did not involve an initial coin offering . . .”); and id. at 51 (“You have to go back to the time this action was filed. This was relatively early on in the development of the SEC’s position with respect to crypto offerings . . .”).

[8]Commission’s Supplemental Brief on Remedies at 3-4, SEC v. LBRY, Inc., No. 21-cv-260 (D.N.H. May 12, 2023), ECF No. 107 (requesting a $111,614 civil money penalty and withdrawing the request for disgorgement); SEC v. LBRY, Inc., 2023 WL 4459290 *5 (D.N.H. July 11, 2023) (imposing $111,614 civil money penalty).

[9] See, e.g., Rodrigo Seira, Justin Slaughter, and Katie Biber, The Current SEC Disclosure Framework Is Unfit for Crypto (Apr. 20, 2023), (“As we have shown above, the current securities framework was tailor-made to regulate fundraising by centralized legal entities issuing securities, such as a company selling shares to the public in its ‘IPO.’ However, crypto assets differ fundamentally from securities and therefore raise different investor disclosure considerations.”).

[10]See, e.g., Coinbase, Re: Petition for Rulemaking – Digital Asset Securities Regulation at 5-6 (Jul. 21, 2022), (“The SEC disclosure regime has historically focused on ensuring that investors have material information necessary to make an informed investment decision. Current disclosure requirements, however, do not cover a number of features unique to digital assets that would undoubtedly be considered important when making an investment decision. For example, investors would likely find information about the risk of a network attack, what kind of governance rights are embedded in which tokens, who has the ability to change the code underlying the assets or the network, and other features that do not exist with respect to traditional securities to be material. Additionally, investors would benefit from comparable disclosures across each digital asset security to assist in identifying differences among investment opportunities.”).

[11]SEC v. LBRY, Inc., 2023 WL 4459290, *3 (D.N.H. July 11, 2023).

[13]LBRY Inc, LLC (@LBRYcom), X (Feb. 9, 2023, 4:39 PM), Public blockchains eliminate the need for reliance on a central intermediary, which makes censoring information stored on a blockchain more difficult.

[14]Email suggestions to [...].


And before... Operation Choke Point 2.0: The Federal Bank Regulators Come For Crypto. Cooper & Kirk, Layers. Mar 2023.

[As summarized by Alex Tabarrok, Mar 30 2023,]

Recent stories in the financial press have uncovered a coordinated campaign by prudential bank regulators to drive crypto businesses out of the financial system. Bank regulators have published informal guidance documents that single out cryptocurrency and cryptocurrency customers as a risk to the banking system. Businesses in the cryptocurrency marketplace are losing their bank accounts, or their access to the ACH network, suddenly, and with no explanation from their bankers. The owners and employees of cryptocurrency firms are even having their personal accounts closed without explanation. And over the past two weeks, federal regulators have shut down a solvent bank that was known to be serving the crypto industry and, although it is required to resolve banks through the “least cost resolution” to the Deposit Insurance Fund, the FDIC chose to shutter rather than sell the part of the bank that serves digital asset customers, costing the Fund billions of dollars.

This pattern of events is not random, and we have seen it before. This is not the first time that federal bank regulators, working with their State-level counterparts, have abused their supervisory authority to label businesses unworthy of having a bank account and worked in secret to purge disfavored lines of commerce from the financial system. Beginning in 2012, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System carried out a coordinated campaign to weaponize the banks against industries that had fallen out of favor with the administration—including gun stores, pawn shops, tobacco stores, payday lenders, and a host of other brick and mortar businesses. That campaign was called Operation Choke Point.

Our firm successfully challenged Operation Choke Point, and it was brought to a halt. The current bout of regulatory overreach against the crypto industry is illegal for much the same as reason as its predecessor. Specifically:

• Operation Choke Point 2.0 deprives business of their constitutional rights to due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment. It is well settled that when a federal agency attaches a derogatory label to an individual or business, and this stigmatizing label causes the business to lose a bank account or broadly precludes them from the pursuit of their chosen trade, the agency has violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, unless if first afforded the individual or business a right to be heard. This is precisely what the federal bank regulators responsible for Operation Choke Point 2.0 have done and continue to do by labeling crypto businesses a threat to the financial system, a source of fraud and misinformation, and a risk to bank liquidity.

• Operation Choke Point 2.0 violates both the non-delegation doctrine and the anticommandeering doctrine, depriving Americans of key structural constitutional protections against the arbitrary exercise of governmental power.

• By leveraging their authority over the banks to acquire the power to pick and choose the customers whom the banks may serve, the bank regulators have exceeded their statutory authority. The bank regulators are charged with supervising the safety and soundness of the banks; their effort to anoint themselves the gatekeepers of the financial system and the ultimate arbiters of American innovation and American economic life cannot be permitted to stand.

• The federal bank regulators are also refusing to perform their non-discretionary duties when doing so will benefit the cryptocurrency industry. State banks that are statutorily entitled to access the federal reserve system are being denied their rights solely because they serve the crypto industry. The federal bank regulators are not free to pick and choose which statutory obligations they duties they wish to perform.

• The federal bank regulators are evading the notice and comment rulemaking requirements of the administrative procedure act by imposing binding requirements on the banking industry through informal guidance documents. This is undemocratic, since it deprives the public of the right to comment on proposed rules, and it also runs contrary to the principle of judicial review, since courts lack the power to review “informal” agency actions.

• Finally, the federal bank regulators are acting in an arbitrary and capricious fashion by failing to adequately explain their decisions, by failing to engage in reasoned decision making, and by failing to treat like cases alike. It is difficult to imagine a more arbitrary and capricious agency action than simultaneously placing a solvent bank into receivership solely because it provided financial services to the crypto industry, while permitting insolvent institutions not tied to the crypto industry to continue operating.

...The persistent unwillingness of the nation’s bank regulators to follow the law and obey the Constitution calls out for Congressional action. Cracks are starting to form in the American financial system as its regulators increasingly abuse their power to achieve aims outside their authority and beyond their competence....We therefore urge Congress to perform its oversight role and hold these agencies to account.