Crypto World Rocked After Long-Time Advocate Backpedals

(Bloomberg) -- It’s a dark day for crypto when one of the best known platforms offering peer-to-peer trading, more in line with the original vision for Bitcoin than centralized exchanges, will start asking users for personal information.

Erik Voorhees, chief executive officer of cryptocurrency exchange ShapeShift AG, said in a blog post on Tuesday the platform is launching a membership program, which "requires basic personal information to be collected." and will "become mandatory soon." It seems like an about-face for the platform which Voorhees said was known as “the exchange without accounts.”

Voorhees said in an e-mailed response to questions that membership will become mandatory within one to two months, and brushed off critics declaring the end of ShapeShift.

“I’ve also lived through many people declaring the end of Bitcoin,” Voorhees wrote. “Ultimately, digital assets and digital finance will dominate the planet, and we are here to help make that happen regardless of the various naysayers.”

Crypto World Rocked After Long-Time Advocate Backpedals

ShapeShift is making the move after users requested account-related features such as email notifications, as it’s exploring the ability to tokenize loyalty programs, and as the company recognizes the need to be "prudent and thoughtful in our approach as we navigate the regulatory environment," according to the blog post. Cryptocurrency watchers have zeroed in on that last item and are speculating Swiss-based ShapeShift has caved to regulators.

Asked whether the move was in response to specific regulatory requirements, Voorhees replied, “this is a precautionary move to derisk the company amid an ever-changing legal grey area.”

Voorhees did appear to partially side with critics in his blog post, as he said making membership mandatory "sucks" and that ShapeShift still believes individuals deserve the right to financial privacy.

Regulatory Review

Scrutiny of cryptocurrency exchanges has intensified in the past year as startups raise billions of dollars in digital tokens trading in a gray regulatory area as U.S. officials have said they’re most likely securities, while claims of market manipulation and outright fraud abound. As exchanges and other firms make an effort to comply, some enthusiasts will see that as crypto losing part of its ethos, while to some participants in more traditional markets it may be what’s needed for them to take the space more seriously.

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“Erik has been in the space from the start advocating the decentralization of cryptocurrencies, and now he’s being criticized for selling out, but here’s the thing: He knows he’s not above the law,” said Katherine Wu, who heads business development at crypto research firm Messari Inc. “Regulators aren’t trying to shut down innovation, but they need to watch out for retail investors. Until we have a better regulatory framework for the crypto industry, there’s going to be a disconnect between this fast-moving industry and the slower law-making process where everyone will be in a tough spot.”

Voorhees said ShapeShift’s membership program will be tiered in five levels. The most basic level is free and open to everyone, and levels 2-5 will give users benefits in exchange for "possession of specific amounts of FOX tokens," an Ethereum-based digital coin.

“The purpose of FOX tokens is to provide access to holders to various benefits with ShapeShift’s products and companies,” said Voorhees. “It is a new economic model which we are excited to pioneer.”

Earlier this year the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reiterated that many online trading platforms for digital assets should register with the agency as exchanges, while former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asked 13 cryptocurrency exchanges for detailed information about their operations as part of a "fact-finding inquiry."

Exchanges based in the U.S. have largely stuck with bigger coins like Bitcoin and Ether to avoid problems with regulators. ShapeShift offers dozens of coins on its platform.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.