Does Kik Stand a Chance Against the Goliath of the SEC in a US Court?

It’s difficult to fight progress. Although, if you're the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), you can at least try, which could explain why the agency has so far refrained from producing clear and favorable cryptocurrency regulation. Since February 2018, the SEC has taken to consider all initial coin offerings (ICOs) as being securities. Meanwhile, in June 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton proclaimed that the commission is "not going to do any violence to the traditional definition of a security that has worked for a long time."

And given that the SEC has closed down its fair share of ICOs, it would seem there's little hope that it's going to provide any special treatment for crypto and propose lenient guidelines or regulation for the industry. Still, there is at least one company operating within crypto that believes such a scenario is possible.

On May 28, it emerged that the creators of the kin cryptocurrency, the Kik platform, had launched what it calls the Defend Crypto fund. Establishing the new fund with an endowment of $5 million, Kik is calling on sympathetic members of the crypto community to donate cryptocurrencies, in case the initial $5 million isn't sufficient to negotiate with the SEC and possibly "take them on in court."

However, while there's little doubt that Kik is absolutely serious about the possibility of fighting it out against the SEC in a legal setting, history suggests that the SEC won’t be budged from its view that kin is a security. But even if the two parties do eventually go to court, the legal opinion Cointelegraph obtained suggests that Kik has a good case, and that the commission should think very carefully before proceeding with any legal action.

A brief history lesson

Back in September 2017, Kik was able to raise almost $100 million in a "token distribution event" (i.e., an ICO) for its kin cryptocurrency, placing it in the top-10 biggest token sales of that year. However, in January 2018, rumors emerged that the SEC had begun investigating the sale, with the commission apparently sending inquiries and one subpoena to the Canadian company (something that has now been confirmed by Kik’s CEO, Ted Livingston).

These inquiries gradually grew in number over the course of 2018, in parallel with the SEC's mounting interest toward ICOs in general. While everything was kept largely under wraps and there were no significant news reports at the time (beyond various pieces of speculation on Reddit), the SEC issued Kik with eight subpoenas between March and July 2018 — and between August and November of the same year, it demanded nine testimonies from members of the Kik team. This was all capped off on Nov. 16, when the SEC issued Kik with a Wells notice, indicating that it would begin enforcement action against the firm, pending approval by commissioners.

As the Wells notice sent by the SEC makes clear, Kik had potentially violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the 1933 Securities Act, which prohibit the sale of securities that haven't been registered with the commission.

Of course, in its response to this letter, Kik strongly refuted any violations, affirming that "Kin is exempt from the federal securities laws" because it "possesses all the characteristics of a currency like Bitcoin and Ether." In other words, its line was that kin isn't a security but rather a currency or a utility token, while its token sale did not fall whatsoever under the description of an "investment contract."

In fact, Kik's 30-page response to the Wells notice was so confident (if not aggressive) that it closed on a defiant tone, with its hired counsel, Patrick E. Gibbs, concluding, “Should the Commission choose to file an enforcement action, Kik and the Kin Foundation are prepared to litigate and are confident that they will prevail in court." This exchange of letters was then followed by a variety of discussions and negotiations between the two parties at the beginning of 2019, with the SEC also requesting further information and documents from Kik.

Since then, the only thing that's happened is that, according to Defend Crypto's website, the SEC extended its Wells notice deadline to some time in May. This was done in order to give the commission additional time to decide and vote on whether to actually take enforcement action. This seems to have displeased Kik, as the messaging app company has responded by publicizing the Defend Crypto fund while explaining to the media on May 16 that it has so far spent $5 million on going back-and-forth with the SEC.

Why the Defend Crypto initiative?

Livingston revealed in a podcast on May 28 that the Defend Crypto fund has been launched not so much to cover the expenses Kik has run up so far, but to help it launch its own legal case against the SEC. The Kik CEO went on to say:

"The continued challenge for us has been the lack of clarity on the regulatory side, and so over the last year and a half, we've also been working with the SEC. [...] Then, when they started to ask us for some comments and some meetings [...] to understand crypto, to create that clear guidance we all need. And after spending 18 months and over $5 million trying to work with them, we just continue to be super frustrated by the lack of clarity [...] and so we've put together defendcrypto.org, and what that's saying is that the only way we're going to get clarity is if somebody goes to court, and so we are prepared to do that."

As Livingston went on to add, Kik and the industry in general need "a new Howey test," so that future cryptocurrency projects can hold token sales without having to worry about whether they should be registered with the SEC or not. More importantly, "that new Howey test is going to come from a ruling in a court case," which is why Kik and the Kin Foundation have launched Defend Crypto — and which is why Kik is prepared to take the SEC to court if the SEC doesn't take them to court first.

What are the chances of success?

It's worth pointing out at this juncture that the SEC has only ever issued one “no-action” letter in its short history of scrutinizing ICOs, a letter that arrived in April and was addressed to TurnKey Jet concerning its TKJ utility tokens. Casual observers would therefore be forgiven for assuming that Kik doesn't have much of a chance when it comes to either changing the SEC's mind, or winning a legal case.

However, while there isn't a clear conviction that Kik will prevail, certain figures within the crypto industry have welcomed its actions, indicating at least a willingness to believe it has a chance.

Jake Chervinsky, a lawyer who currently serves as general counsel for decentralized money market Compound, tweeted:

Likewise, Anthony "Pomp" Pomp