Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation Issues Regulatory Guidance on Digital Currencies

On June 13, 2017, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (“IDFPR”) released guidance outlining its policies with respect to the treatment of digital currencies under the Illinois Transmitters of Money Act (“TOMA”).  The guidance document offers a clear distinction between traditional currencies, which it considers “money,” and digital currencies, which it states are not.  The guidance will be welcomed by Illinois residents who use and accept digital currencies in commercial transactions.

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CFTC Launches FinTech Innovation Initiative “LabCFTC”

On May 17, 2017, Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) Acting Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo announced an “important step forward” in bringing the CFTC’s regulations into the “digital world of the 21st century.”  The CFTC’s new FinTech initiative, LabCFTC, will facilitate cooperation between the CFTC and FinTech innovators.

Acting Chairman Giancarlo stated that the primary aims of the initiative are: (1) to provide greater regulatory certainty to the industry; and (2) to identify and utilize emerging technologies that can better enable the CFTC to regulate the commodities markets.  Given the breadth of the “commodity” definition, numerous potential FinTech initiatives, such as those related to clearing, digital currencies, transaction settlement, etc., may fall under CFTC jurisdiction.  Often the regulations are new and potentially costly and burdensome for FinTech startups, so any guidance and certainty from the CFTC should be very welcomed by the industry.

The initiative’s two core components are GuidePoint and CFTC 2.0. GuidePoint will provide a direct point of contact to FinTech innovators to engage with the CFTC, discuss compliance issues, and obtain guidance.  GuidePoint will have its own suite in the CFTC’s New York office.  Acting Chairman Giancarlo clarified that CFTC will not be entering the business of providing legal advice to market participants but it will help innovators better understand relevant regulations and the CFTC’s policies.  LabCFTC will not have its own independent decision making authority, but can offer some guidance to industry members.  The CFTC website will have a new portal that persons can use to reach out with such questions and concerns.  CFTC 2.0 is a FinTech/RegTech innovation lab that will better enable the CFTC to understand new financial technologies and identify useful applications.

In a speech announcing the initiative, Acting Chairman Giancarlo expressed his hope that “LabCFTC and its engagement with technology innovators will assist the CFTC in prioritizing efforts to modernize its regulatory mission.”

If you have any questions regarding LabCFTC or wish to contact the CFTC via GuidePoint, please contact Kari S. Larsen (klarsen@reedsmith.com) or Michael S. Selig (mselig@reedsmith.com).

Conference of State Bank Supervisors Files Lawsuit against OCC to Stop Special Purpose FinTech Charter

On April 26, 2017, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (“CSBS”), the trade association that represents state banking regulators, initiated a lawsuit against the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent the OCC from moving forward with its proposal for granting special-purpose national bank charters to fintech companies.

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UN Seeks Comments on Blockchain Technology

Following the trend of regulators across the globe, the United Nations Office for Project Services’ (“UNOPS”) issued a request for information regarding the application of blockchain technologies on April 24, 2017.  The UNOPS has formed a blockchain group within the United Nations to analyze the possible applicability of blockchain technologies to the international assistance area.  The Request for Information explains that the UNOPS seeks “information widely from the industry of blockchain space and to identify potential partners / suppliers for the future work in the area of international, humanitarian, development or peacekeeping assistance.”

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European Commission Requests Comments on FinTech

On March 23, 2017, the European Commission (“EC”) published a Consultation Document entitled “FinTech: A More Competitive and Innovative European Financial Sector.”  The Consultation Document seeks comments regarding the development and regulation of novel financial technologies, including distributed ledger technology (“DLT” or “blockchain”), cloud computing, and artificial intelligence (“AI”).  The EC hopes to obtain feedback from both financial services providers and consumers that will assist it in developing an appropriate regulatory framework for FinTech. It explains, in the Consultation Document, that “appropriate policies on important issues, such as access to technology, data standardisation and security, personal data protection and data management, need to be put in place,” to account for new innovative financial technologies.

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Supreme Court Holds New York Credit Card Surcharge Statute Regulates Speech

In the ongoing skirmishes between card networks and merchants in the surcharge world, the U.S. Supreme Court has just issued a significant ruling on a novel theory. Merchants in the State of New York sought to charge consumers higher fees for purchases made by credit cards. New York state law contains a prohibition on the imposition of surcharges in such instances. The law states that merchants may not “impose a surcharge on a holder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check or similar means.” N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law §581. The law is similar to a prohibition on surcharging credit card use that the major card networks had previously imposed on merchants, but which was challenged as a violation of the anti-trust laws and consequently, has not been in effect for some time. The merchants had argued that the law prohibits free speech by regulating how they communicate the surcharge to their customers. The merchants used the “single tag” method, in which the cash price appears on the item; consumers were advised that the surcharge amount is in addition to the amount on the price tag. The merchants are not prohibited from discounting prices for payment by cash.

The State of New York’s position was that the law regulates the actions of the merchants. The District Court found in favor of the merchant’s free speech argument, however, the Second Circuit vacated that judgment and instructed the District Court to dismiss the case. In the view of the Second Circuit the law did not violate the merchants’ right of free speech under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that the law does regulate speech and remanded the case to the Second Circuit for a determination of whether the law violates the First Amendment.

The free speech concept argued in this case, that the law prohibits the merchants from communicating the surcharge to their customers, marks a novel Constitutional argument. The outcome may be the final resolution of this long running pricing battle. Other states have similar prohibitions on surcharging so the decision could reverberate outside of the Second Circuit. We will be following developments very closely.

To read the entirety of the Reed Smith client alert, visit reedsmith.com.

D.C. Circuit Court Strikes Opt-Out Notice Requirement For Certain Faxes

On Friday, in a decision certain to please the business community as well as the Chair and new majority of the Federal Communications Committee, the D.C. Circuit struck down parts of the FCC’s October 30, 2014 Order, 29 F.C.C. Rcd. 13998 (FCC 14-164), requiring that solicited faxes (those sent with consent of the recipient) must contain opt-out notices in order to avoid violating the TCPA. See Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley, et al v. FCC (No. 14-1234). In a 2-1 decision, the majority held that the FCC lacked authority under the statute to regulate solicited faxes. The D.C. Circuit thus limits liability under the TCPA to just unsolicited fax advertisements, as its plain language states.

This ruling vindicates the two Republican FCC Commissioners, now Agency Chair Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, both of whom dissented in 2014 when the Commission’s fax Order was adopted. The ruling should also moot pending lawsuits based solely on the absence of an opt-out notice in faxes sent with the recipient’s express permission or invitation.

One caution is worth noting though. The decision does not eliminate the need to honor opt-out requests, thus creating a potential issue of fact for litigants.  On the one hand, this should make it much harder for plaintiffs’ attorneys to succeed at class certification because whether any particular person opted out of receiving faxes is an individualized factual issue.  On the other hand, however, it becomes harder for a defendant to refute a claim that a particular plaintiff revoked his or her consent before receiving an allegedly offending fax.

Under the FCC’s 2014 Order, onerous as the requirement to include an opt-out notice in every fax was, the business community had certainty as to what was required in communicating with customers or potential customers by fax. Now, it is incumbent on businesses to review their existing procedures or implement new procedures to defend against allegations that they have ignored or mishandled attempts by consumers to withdraw consent.

It is also worth pointing out that Bais Yaakov was argued before a three judge panel consisting of D.C. Circuit Judges Brett Kavanaugh and Nina Pillard, and Senior Circuit Judge Raymond Randolph on November 8, 2016.  Oral argument in the all-important TCPA case ACA International, et al. v. FCC, also before the D.C. Circuit, was argued a few weeks earlier, on October 19, 2016, before Judges Pillard, Sri Srinivasan, and Harry Edwards.  Now that Bais Yaakov has been decided, one can assume that decision in ACA cannot be far behind, and with it more certainty with respect to the definition of an “automatic telephone dialing system” and — hopefully — some much needed, practical relief, such as in the case of reassigned telephone numbers.

Before one starts uncorking the champagne, however, it is worth noting that Judge Pillard, the only judge on both the panel that heard Bais Yaakov and the panel that heard ACA, was the lone dissenter in the just decided fax case.  In her dissent, Judge Pillard focused on consumer harm and the need to address what she referred to as “a fusillade of annoying and unstoppable advertisements.” In her view, Congress expressly delegated authority to the FCC to implement a prohibition on unsolicited fax advertisements, and the opt-out notice requirement gave practical effect to that ban.

In any event, it shouldn’t be long now until we see how Judge Pillard and the rest of the D.C. Circuit’s ACA panel weighs in on this ever-evolving area of the law.

SEC Rejects Second Bitcoin ETF Due to Lack of Regulatory Oversight

On March 28, 2017, the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a second denial of a bitcoin exchange-traded fund (“ETF”), following its rejection of the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust earlier this month (Reed Smith commentary is available here). SolidX Bitcoin Trust would hold bitcoin as its primary asset, together with smaller amounts of cash.  Theft of bitcoins would be protected against through insurance coverage.

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BATS BZX Exchange’s Proposal Disapproved by the SEC

On March 10, 2017, the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC“) issued an order disapproving BATS BZX Exchange’s proposal to list and trade shares of the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust. The proposal, if granted, would have established a bitcoin exchange-traded fund (“ETF“) that market participants could invest in through the BATS BZX Exchange platform.

Read our full report at our sister site, the Financial Regulatory Report.

The SEC order is available here.

Proposed 2017-2018 New York Budget Covers Current Exempt FinTech Companies

Lender license requirements recently included in the New York governor’s proposed 2017-2018 budget would expand the jurisdiction of the New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) to cover many financial technology (FinTech) credit-lending companies that are currently exempt from license requirements.  The proposed budget would prohibit businesses that are not registered as licensed lenders from making personal loans with a principal of $25,000 or less, and commercial loans of $50,000 or less, regardless of interest rate.  Current New York state banking law only requires a license if the charged interest rate is above 16 percent.  The budget would additionally apply the licensing requirement not only to any company that solicits and “makes, purchases or acquires” loans for New York residents, but also to any that “arranges or facilitates” the origination of such loans.

Read our full report on our sister site, the Financial Regulatory Report.

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