The crypto industry is on the edge of its seat as Coinbase, one of the oldest and most recognized companies in the sector, faces off against the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in a legal battle that could set a precedent for future regulation. The crux of the dispute revolves around the classification of securities and the role of staking within the crypto landscape.
As you may remember, on 6 June 2023, the SEC charged Coinbase with “operating its crypto asset trading platform as an unregistered national securities exchange, broker, and clearing agency.” The SEC also charged Coinbase for “failing to register the offer and sale of its crypto asset staking-as-a-service program.”
According to a report by Tracy Wang for CoinDesk, on 13 July 2023, during the initial court hearing, Judge Katherine Polka Faila took center stage, probing both parties with pointed questions. The judge’s skepticism towards the SEC’s position was palpable, as she noted a discrepancy between the SEC’s assertion of not intending to regulate all cryptocurrencies and its pursuit of alleged securities law violations against Coinbase.
The SEC’s representative held firm, asserting that the agency’s focus is on regulating conduct, not specific assets. However, when questioned about the Commission’s stance on Bitcoin and Ether, the representative confirmed that Bitcoin’s status as a non-security was not under dispute, but remained silent on Ether.
A key point of disagreement emerged around the SEC’s previous approval of Coinbase’s S-1, a form required for an initial public offering (IPO). Coinbase’s legal team pointed out that several of the crypto assets named in the SEC’s lawsuit were already trading on the platform when the SEC gave its nod to Coinbase’s S-1.
The two parties also sparred over the nature of Coinbase’s staking program. Coinbase’s lawyers argued that staking services do not constitute an investment contract, likening it to a paid service with no risk of loss to the staking party. The SEC, on the other hand, countered that even IT services can have an entrepreneurial aspect, thereby classifying staking as an investment activity.
The case also delved into the major questions doctrine, a legal principle that Coinbase might use to argue that the SEC is exceeding its regulatory boundaries. This doctrine was recently invoked by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.
Crypto lawyer “MetaLawMan” offered a word of caution, advising against drawing too many conclusions from the judge’s initial remarks, given that the judge had only brief letters from each side to base her comments on. However, he did acknowledge that the judge’s questions were insightful and that she seemed doubtful of some of the SEC’s responses.
According to a blog post by Coinbase published on 14 July 2023, the SEC and state regulatory bodies from ten states have raised allegations against Coinbase, centering around the crypto platform’s retail staking services. Authorities from states such as California, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have pressed for operational changes to Coinbase’s services, despite the platform’s transparent and safe handling of staking services for almost four years.
Coinbase staunchly disputes the allegations, asserting that staking is not an investment but a critical function of the crypto economy that benefits millions of global users. According to Coinbase, Staking doesn’t just form part of their business offering but is also a cornerstone of the crypto industry, and so, the company is committed to protecting access to staking for all.
The regulatory hurdles mean California, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Wisconsin customers will face temporary restrictions on staking additional assets through Coinbase. However, Coinbase has reassured that this won’t affect the vast majority of their customers, and the assets staked before the orders remain unaffected.