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Chan Zuckerberg Initiative rolls on despite Facebook's problems

Initiative co-founder Priscilla Chan says the philanthropic organization is no whitewash for what's ailing the social network.

Priscilla Chan at the TechCrunch Distrupt Conference in September 2018

 "Frankly there are a lot easier ways to build up PR than trying to tackle education reform or criminal justice reform," Priscilla Chan says. 

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Priscilla Chan wants to make it clear that Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are two different things, despite family ties.

Chan, a pediatrician and co-founder of the philanthropic initiative with her husband, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. addressed that boundary Tuesday in an interview on CBS This Morning. (Editors' note: That show and CNET are both part of CBS.) 

Asked whether 2018 had been a tough year, given the scandals that rocked Facebook, she made a distinction between the two entities.

"Mark and his team [have] done a great job at Facebook," she said, "but for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative we also want to make sure that we are making good choices and being good stewards of the opportunity."

Asked whether the initiative's good-works projects offer an opportunity to whitewash some of Facebook's problems, she said: "Frankly there are a lot easier ways to build up PR than trying to tackle education reform or criminal justice reform."

In a second part of the interview, which aired Wednesday, Chan spoke about a training program at an Oklahoma prison.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative declined to comment beyond what Chan said during the interview. Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment.

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Chan and Zuckerberg launched the initiative in late 2015, pledging to push for progress in education, science, justice and community outreach. Most audaciously, it has set a goal of eliminating disease by the end of the century, investing $3 billion in that effort over the next decade. The initiative, which is a limited liability company instead of a nonprofit foundation, is funded on the whole by Zuckerberg's Facebook shares.

But these are troubled times for Facebook. Over the course of 2018, the mammoth social network was beset by turmoil, from the Cambridge Analytica privacy uproar to a massive data breach to revelations of data-sharing deals that may have violated a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. In April, Zuckerberg spent nearly 10 hours over two days testifying before Congress about how his company handles the data of its more than 2 billion users, how it deals with election interference and whether it has a bias against conservative points of view.

Those rough waters have spilled into 2019. On Tuesday, a committee of the UK Parliament issued a report that likened Facebook to "digital gangsters" operating outside the law. (The Chan interview for CBS This Morning was recorded before that report came out.)

Teaching coding to inmates

On Wednesday, Chan discussed a program, backed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, that teaches computer coding to inmates at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma.

"We need to be giving people who are incarcerated the cutting-edge skills," she said, to prepare them for the workforce after their release.

The 18 woman enrolled in the program are learning languages including HTML and JavaScript, as part of a yearlong course to become software engineers.

Chan said she believes tech companies are ready to hire former inmates who are motivated and have the necessary skills.

"There are so many jobs that need to be filled today," she said. "I think there's an incredible appetite for people with the right training to do the right job."

On Tuesday, Chan said that neither she nor Zuckerberg has any political ambitions.

As to whether Facebook or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will ultimately have a greater impact on society, Chan said, "Too soon to say."

First published Feb. 19 at 8:28 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:34 a.m. PT:  Added response from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Update, Feb. 20 at 7:11 a.m. PT: Added information from the Wednesday segment about teaching computer coding to inmates at an Oklahoma prison.