Will the UK’s “wait-and-see” stance on AI regulation lead to innovation or harm?

Citing the Prime Minister’s intention not to “rush to regulate”, the UK Government has reaffirmed its intention to implement a non-statutory, regulator-led, principles-based approach to AI regulation with the stated aim of supporting innovation while addressing risks.

In its March 2023 white paper, the UK Government set out its proposals for a “pro-innovation” AI regulatory framework in the UK. [1] The proposed framework  (as discussed in our recent related perspectives piece) revolves around five “cross-sectoral principles”, which are to be interpreted and applied by existing UK regulators – including the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the Office of Communications (Ofcom), the Information Commissioner's Office, and the Financial Conduct Authority - within their domain of expertise. [2] This “context-based” and “flexible” approach to AI regulation was described by the UK Government as the best way to achieve safe AI, without stifling innovation and growth. 

In February 2024 the UK Government published its response to a 12-week consultation on the framework (the“Response”)[3], which substantively re-affirmed its commitment to its proposed approach.  In justifying its context-based framework the Response highlights the “strong support” it received during the consultation process, as well as the fact that a number of regulators have already begun to take steps in line with the proposed framework.

The UK Government also re-affirmed its intention to implement the regime, at least initially, on a non-statutory basis.  The Response acknowledges that, while the challenges posed by AI technologies – and in particular more advanced future “general-purpose AI systems” – will inevitably require legislative action, it noted that this should not happen until the “understanding of the risk has matured”.  Accordingly, the UK Government concluded that its proposed approach is currently the right one as it allows the UK to keep pace with rapid and uncertain advances in AI without harming its ability to benefit from technology progress.

A regulator-led approach

To support UK regulators in their interpretation and application of the AI principles, the UK Government separately published “initial” guidance for regulators.[4] The guidance is not intended to be a prescriptive guide on the implementation of the principles, but rather an aid to assist regulators in considering how the principles apply within their regulatory remit.  As with the Response, the guidance accentuates the regulator-specific nature of the framework, emphasising that it remains the responsibility of regulators to develop their own tools and guidance as they deem appropriate within their domain. 

The guidance is described as a first phase, with further work being undertaken to refine and expand the guidance. To gain an understanding of how regulators are incorporating the principles into their work, the government has directed a number of regulators (including the CMA and Ofcom) to publish an update outlining their strategic approach to AI by 30 April 2024. It is envisaged that these reports will help identify any overlaps or gaps in regulatory coverage of AI risks. To further support the regulators and to ensure a coherent and consistent approach to AI regulation, the UK Government also confirmed the creation of a central AI function within the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). 

AI and Intellectual Property

As well as outlining a number of further, more targeted planned consultations and requests for evidence, the Response highlights the growing concerns creative industries and other intellectual property right holders have regarding copyright protections in the era of generative AI. 

The Response explains that, while the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) established a working group bringing together AI developers and IP right holders to discuss the interaction between copyright and AI, the working group was unable to agree a voluntary code of practice on copyright and AI.

Instead, the UK Government will engage with AI developers and rights holder sectors to seek a workable and effective approach, but noted that this will require a greater degree of transparency from AI developers in relation to the data inputs used.


Despite acknowledging that the challenges posed by AI technologies will ultimately require more prescriptive regulation (and more likely legislation) in order to address AI-related harms and ensure public safety, the UK Government has decided to adopt a “pro-innovation” principled-based approach, stating that acting prematurely would harm the UK’s ability to benefit from technological progress, while potentially failing to address emerging risks. This approach contrasts with the EU’s anticipated AI Act, which would set out binding rules for AI across all sectors and applications.

Whether the UK’s “wait-and-see” approach is ultimately successful in driving innovation while appropriately addressing risks remains to be seen. However, the failure of the IPO working group illustrates that a principles-based approach in consultation with stakeholders may not be easy to implement in practice. In the absence of clear rules, private enforcement – that is, entities using private law mechanisms and remedies to ensure compliance with the relevant framework - will likely play an important role in clarifying the application of the law and providing pathways for redress for those that may be adversely affected by future developments in AI.


[1]UK Department for Science, Innovation & Technology, ‘A pro-innovation approach to AI regulation’ (March 2023).
[2]We note that the the application of the framework is not limited to just these, or another limited set of UK regulators, albeit the UK Government has acknowledged that the principles will be more applicable to some regulators than others. 
[3] UK Department for Science, Innovation & Technology, ‘A pro-innovation approach to AI regulation: government response’ (February 2024).
[4]UK Department for Science, Innovation & Technology, ‘Implementing the UK’s AI Regulatory Principles - Initial Guidance for Regulators’ (February 2024).