The SEC recently brought its first enforcement action against the creator of a “decentralized” digital token trading platform for operating as an unregistered national securities exchange, and in doing so joined the CFTC in putting a scare into smart contract developers.

On November 8, 2018, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order settling charges against Zachary Coburn, the creator of EtherDelta, an online “decentralized” digital token trading platform running on the Ethereum blockchain. The SEC charged only Coburn, the individual who founded EtherDelta, but no longer owns or operates it. Note that the SEC press release states that the investigation is continuing.

The SEC announced its action against Coburn a month after a CFTC Commissioner stated in a speech that smart contract developers could be found liable for aiding and abetting violations of commodity futures laws. Both agencies appear to be putting smart contract developers on notice that by releasing code into the ether, they are inviting potential liability for any rule violations, even if they sever their connections with the code.

The SEC found that EtherDelta provides a marketplace to bring together buyers and sellers of digital tokens. The platform facilitates these transactions through the use of a smart contract, which carries out the responsibilities generally assumed by an intermediary: the smart contract validates the order messages, confirms the terms and conditions of orders, executes paired orders, and directs the distributed ledger to be updated to reflect a trade. The SEC employed a “functional test” to determine whether EtherDelta constitutes an exchange and to hold Coburn, who “wrote and deployed the EtherDelta smart contract . . . and exercised complete and sole control over EtherDelta’s operations,” responsible. As the Chief of the SEC’s cyber unit stated in the press release, “[w]hether it’s decentralized or not, whether it’s on smart contract or not, what matters is it’s an exchange.”

EtherDelta is one example of the innovation that smart contracts can facilitate. Innovation, however, is not a substitute for compliance. Indeed, in the SEC’s press release announcing the settlement, Co-Director of Enforcement Steven Peiken acknowledged that blockchain technology is ushering in significant innovation to the securities markets, but cautioned that “to protect investors, this innovation necessitates the SEC’s thoughtful oversight of digital markets and enforcement of existing laws.” Significantly, the SEC found that certain transactions on the platform involved digital tokens that constitute securities, but declined to identify those tokens. Senior SEC officials have previously stated that ether is not a security, but this case shows that the SEC has not reached the same determination for all tokens issued on the Ethereum blockchain.